The Incredible Hulk (1977, Kenneth Johnson)

The Incredible Hulk opens with a montage of lead Bill Bixby’s martial bliss. It goes on for quite a while, just Bixby and (an uncredited) Lara Parker being a happy married couple. Then tragedy strikes. Like most tragedies in The Incredible Hulk, it involves a car tire blowing out. There are three such instances in the movie. The first two are fine. The third one’s contrived, but effective. Director and writer and producer Johnson doesn’t let anyone acknowledge how unlikely the third instance seems; Hulk takes itself way too seriously for that sort of thing.

And Hulk taking itself seriously works. Sure, Hulk Lou Ferrigno has a terrible wig but who knows what would happen to hair after a person metamorphoses into a… well, an incredible hulk. But the rest of the seriousness? It works.

Even the manipulative opening montage.

It’s almost a year after the tragedy. Bixby has thrown himself into his work; he and research partner Susan Sullivan are trying to figure what gives people superhuman strength in cases of crisis. It’s not clear whether they’ve been working on the project since before the tragedy, as it ties directly into Bixby and Parker’s experiences.

The first act of Hulk is this phenomenally plotted science and research story. Sullivan does great selling all the scientific stuff (for a while at least, Hulk sounds pretty scientificy–the science variation of truthy). Sullivan does a great job with everything. Bixby might get top-billing, but Sullivan makes the movie. She and Bixby have this gentle relationship; when Johnson adds their backstory in exposition towards the end of the second act, it all works because Sullivan has been so good.

As the movie begins, Bixby’s not doing well at work. He walks out on an interview with mom Susan Batson who found super-strength to save son Eric Deon. Sullivan, playing the responsible one, has to get Bixby focused. Turns out she gets him too focused and he starts experimenting on himself. Resulting in the third blowout and the first appearance of Ferrigno.

Ferrigno’s “first day” out as the Hulk is Johnson doing something of a Frankenstein homage. The electronically amplified Hulk growls don’t work–and the wig is terrible–but Ferringo works hard in his scenes. He gets to over-emote since he’s a seven foot tall musclebound green grotesque, but the over-emoting is what the part needs. Johnson knows it too. He gives Ferringo more emotional scenes than Bixby by the end of it. Bixby’s sad, but Ferrigno’s tragic. Sullivan’s great with both of them.

Did I already mention she makes the Hulk? Not literally, of course, because she’s a responsible scientist, unlike Bixby.

Unfortunately, once Ferrigno shows up, the movie takes a turn. It’s been expansive until that point–introducing new characters, having Bixby and Sullivan’s research go somewhere–but once it’s about figuring out the Hulk, the movie starts folding in on itself. It’s just Bixby and Sullivan trying to figure things out. And dodge tabloid reporter Jack Colvin, who is very dedicated to his job, but very bad at it. Colvin’s performance also isn’t up to Sullivan or Bixby’s level, which certainly doesn’t help the already narratively troubled third act.

The movie’s technically accomplished, with Johnson getting a lot of good work out of his TV movie crew. Howard Schwartz’s photography is excellent for the daytime stuff and interior night stuff, okay for the exterior night stuff. Johnson’s direction is rather good. Surprisingly good in spots. The editing is fantastic–Alan C. Marks and Jack W. Schoengarth cut the heck out of the first act setup. Okay, they can’t make the remembered dialogue playing as voiceover work but who can? And the script needs the voiceovers for introspective purposes. Johnson likes introspective; he gets the tragedy out of it.

He’s good at the introspective stuff too. Bixby’s great at being sad. Sullivan’s great at everything, which I think I mentioned. She really holds the movie together. Anyway, Johnson’s not great at some of the action stuff. He’s fine with scaling up to big set pieces, but he’s not so great at little stuff. Like his Frankenstein homage. It’s well-directed, but the actors? Johnson doesn’t pay any attention to their performances, just how they’re moving through the action sequence. Their performances need a lot of attention, especially given the action sequence. Johnson doesn’t direct much from character point of view (if ever). Sometimes that point of view would help things.

I can’t forget–Batson’s great. She’s only in it for a bit but it suggests Johnson’s going to keep bringing in excellent performances in small parts. Doesn’t work out that way, though. Instead we get Colvin’s performance rolling gradually downhill from mediocre.

Joseph Harnell’s music has one good theme and then the rest of it is hot and cold. He runs out of ideas for the action scenes pretty quick. And the dramatic stuff only really works when he’s playing with that one good theme.

The Incredible Hulk could be better–another half hour to play with might have given Johnson some ideas for subplots–but it’s still pretty good.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson; teleplay by Johnson, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Howard Schwatz; edited by Alan C. Marks and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Bill Bixby (Dr. David Banner), Susan Sullivan (Dr. Elaina Marks), Jack Colvin (Jack McGee), Lara Parker (Laura Banner), Susan Batson (Mrs. Maier), Eric Deon (B.J.), Charles Siebert (Ben), and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk).


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