by Steve Habrat
In 2010, director Darren Aronofsky became a household name with the success of his sexually charged thriller Black Swan. After years of enjoying a devoted cult following with films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, the filmmaker finally broke through into the mainstream with his steamy tale of a delicate ballerina slowly slipping into pitch-black insanity. Earning universal critical acclaim and snagging several Academy Award nominations, audiences were curious to see what all the fuss was about—and eager to catch a glimpse of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis swapping some spit. After almost four years of waiting, Aronofsky returns to the local Regal Cinemas with Noah, an epic and controversial reimagining of the Old Testament’s beloved tale, Noah’s Ark. Obliging the overwhelming demand for darker and grittier blockbusters, Aronofsky proves that he can indeed hold his own in the popcorn arena without totally turning his back on his art-house past. Truth be told, Noah has a colossal visual scope that is never short of spectacular. It’s immensely stylish, with a number of talented thespians nailing their respective roles. With Noah, Aronofsky cooks up a unique blockbuster formula that borrows a bit from his trippy mindbender The Fountain, but a bloated runtime and an uneven second half finds this beaut taking on some water.
Noah begins by explaining that the once beautiful Earth has slowly been polluted by cities built by the ruthless king Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone). One day, a young Noah is about to receive the precious snakeskin shed by the serpent in the Garden of Eden from his father, Lamech, when Tubal-Cain and his forces interrupt them. Determined to take the hill for himself, Tubal-Cain kills Lamech, steals the snakeskin, and takes the new slice of land. Noah narrowly escapes the encounter, feeling into the rocky wasteland before him. Many years later, Noah (played by Russell Crowe) and his sons, Shem (played by Douglas Booth), Ham (played by Logan Lerman), and Japheth (played by Leo McHugh Carroll), are scavenging the wasteland for anything they may be able to use when they witness a drop of water hit the ground and a small flower instantly sprout from the scorched soil. Later that night, Noah has a vision of humanity being wiped out by a massive flood sent by the Creator. Confiding in his wife, Naameh (played by Jennifer Connelly), the family sets out on a journey to speak with Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins) about the bizarre vision. Along their journey, the family rescues a severely wounded young girl named Ila (played by Emma Watson), who was left to die in the wasteland. Relentlessly hunted by Tubal-Cain’s forces, the family receives help from a group of rock-like monsters called The Watchers, which are actually fallen angles who took the rock form after landing on the polluted soils of Earth. After experiencing another vision and receiving a seed from the Garden of Eden, Noah realizes that he has been chosen by the Creator to build an ark and save the animals of Earth from the great flood.
In this new era of the dark and gritty blockbuster, Aronofsky’s Noah isn’t handled any differently. It’s got its fair share of shaky camera work, gritty violence, and smudged grime smeared all over the faces of each and every character. This approach gives the story of Noah’s Ark a realistic feel, even when the fantasy action spirals its way out of the gunky layers of mud and blood. We’re treated to cosmic visions of the Garden of Eden, a twinkling universe made from infinite darkness, a starry heaven peeking through the heavy clouds that blanket the cancerous Earth, and The Watchers, the rock-monsters that look like they lumbered forth from the imagination of the late monster-kingpin Ray Harryhausen. There is clear inspiration drawn from The Fountain, especially the futuristic space travel and the Spanish conquistador storylines that bookended the modern day content. And in typical Aronofsky tradition, each and every moment is made gloriously dramatic with the aid of Clint Mansell’s typically grand strings. Mansell frequently collaborates with Aronofsky, providing raw violins and slamming orchestral cues to give even the smallest scenes a towering and emotionally charged power. If I were to guess, their past collaborations on Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan were just warm-ups for this epic.
From its opening frames until the battle between The Watchers and Tubal-Cain’s forces for the ark, Noah is a singular and sweeping achievement—a blockbuster from a man who has never really dabbled in filmmaking on a scale such as this. While he borrows a bit from The Fountain and finds fantasy inspiration in other period epics such as Lord of the Rings, Noah is still alive with Aronofsky’s art-house spirit. It’s refined, even when stampedes of CGI critters fly, stomp, slither, and gallop into the bowels of Noah’s ark. Most eye-popping is the massive battle set in the blinding rainstorm pouring down from the heavens. The action is crystal clear and tremendously meticulous as The Watchers clash with the darker forces that hunger for shelter inside the mud-and-stick fortress. It truly makes you wonder what Aronofsky could do with other blockbusters, specifically those in the sci-fi or comic book realm. (It was rumored that he wanted to direct a Batman film, and for a while he was attached to the RoboCop reboot that was released earlier this year.) However, it’s the second act of Noah that really starts to show signs of fatigue, as the action retreats to the inside of the ark. From here, Noah evolves into a bit of a bore as CGI waves crash and Noah’s sanity starts to slip. There’s an unexpected pregnancy that Noah believes is a curse, the presence of an evil character that should have probably perished in the battle for the ark, and a tug of war for the soul of one of Noah’s sons. It’s intermittently interesting and tense, but it’s way too choppy and ends up bringing the brisk pacing to a screeching halt.
On another positive note, Noah is teeming with gripping performances, specifically from Mr. Russell Crowe. As always, Crowe brings an intensity that is unmatched, playing Noah as a conflicted soul who believes that nothing should stand in the way of the Creator’s plan. Even if it is a bit silly when Noah is sulking around the ark and threatening to kill a child, Crowe manages to inject a bit of sympathetic menace into the role. Connelly, meanwhile, is elegantly poised in the role of Noah’s fiercely loyal wife, but her love is tested when the family bobs along in the flood. There are echoes of an Oscar in one emotional standoff, as she sobs at Noah’s horrifying and heartless decision to strike down a miracle. Winstone is lip-smacking evil as Tubal-Cain, the mangy king that growls through blood bits of reptile about man taking control of the world around him. Harry Potter’s Emma Watson continues to prove herself as a young talent to watch as Ila, the adopted daughter of Noah who has caught the attention of Shem. Anthony Hopkins turns up in the small role of Methuselah, Noah’s senile grandfather who craves a handful of sweet berries and is able to work incredible miracles. Rounding out the main cast is Logan Lerman as Ham, Noah’s impossibly difficult son who demands a wife and walks a tightrope between good and evil.
Considering that Noah is drawn from the Old Testament, you’re probably wondering if the film becomes overbearingly religious or preachy. Aronofsky chooses to focus on the barbaric nature of man, sometimes graphically so. He warns us that we should be respectful of our fellow man, and that we should treat the world around us with affectionate respect—a fiercely relevant and somewhat simple message in a time when climate change is a hot topic of debate and mankind grows increasingly savage, self-centered, and cruel. Overall, as a daring slice of biblical escapism, Noah packs plenty of awe-inspiring moments that are sure to pack a movie house. Its deafening action practically shakes the seats from the screws holding them to the floor, and it’s emotional surges crash down upon the heads of the audience like tidal waves. It can be disturbing, eerie, intimate, delicate, and dreamy, all wrapped up with Aronofsky’s unmistakable cosmic visions. However dazzling Noah may be, a slimmed down runtime and a reworked second half would have kept this mighty vessel afloat.
by Steve Habrat
After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.
The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.
In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.
The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to. The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.
The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor. Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.
Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.
The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life. Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.
While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.
Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.
With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.
Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.