Whither Hulk?

Film bursts out of early bad buzz with groundbreaking CG work

There’s always a huge sense of anticipation that comes when the Marvel logo flashes across the screen in a movie theater and quick flashes of classic comicbook characters from the iconic company fill the screen.

It’s a rousing way to begin one of the films licensed from Marvel’s stable of characters — and, as some quip, usually the highlight of the overblown film that follows.

High expectations plagued Ang Lee’s “Hulk” from the beginning, and the resulting film — an awkward mix of Oedipal arthouse and slam-bang summer tentpole — disappointed many. The Universal pic tallied $132.1 million at the domestic box office, with an estimated price tag of at least $137 million. A loss on the bottom line does not a blockbuster make.

From a technical standpoint, however, the effects employed on the film were — pun intended — a marvel. Dennis Muren’s Industrial Light & Magic team made a character that’s now considered the standard-bearer in terms of textured digital skin, humanoid facial expressions — and exhilarating butt-kicking between imaginary critters, as shown during the Hulk’s fight with mutant dogs.

But some sneered. Not only was it not the Hulk of the original comicbook, it wasn’t the campy Hulk of Lou Ferrigno. ILM’s creature was more ethereal, something that auds had to reconcile with their “Hulk smash!” expectations.

Can the Acad look beyond disappointing B.O. and aud disillusionment to give it a nom? The film was one of seven to make the effects bakeoff, and therefore is a contender for the final three films that will be up for an Oscar.

“I think that the visual effects branch is pretty discriminating and will give careful consideration and appreciation of the work that went into it,” says Jim Morris, prexy of Lucas Digital, which oversees ILM. “We’ll get a fair shake. On the other hand, it’s a naive statement to suggest that the overall performance of the film doesn’t impact its award consideration just a little bit.”

To Morris, the biggest stride in technology during “Hulk” came in showing subsurface light emanating from the characters.

“When a person stands in light, some of it penetrates the surface of the skin and some of it bounces back,” Morris says. “When you look at somebody like Nicole Kidman, you see a bit of a glow — because she actually does glow as a result of the reflection of light. What we worked on with the Hulk was the subsurface light scattering — albeit the character is green.”

The irony, of course, is that an unfinished version of “Hulk” — which included rudimentary versions of its groundbreaking effects — was leaked on the Internet before the film’s release. This started the avalanche of snarking about the look of the film. Readers of the movie gossip site AintItCoolNews.com derided it as “unrealistic” and “crappy” and comlained, “no amount of makeup is going to make this pig into a prom queen.”

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