Reviews - Hulk

Review by Bluntinstrument

For a film about a very angry green giant inside a repressed smitten scientist's body (that's most of the plot covered, by the way), Danny Elfman's score is quite a shock. For all its brassy raw in violent scenes, this is a very cold score. The descending motif (usually in the form of a clustered chord progression) that runs through it and dominates the main titles is emotionally ambivalent, somehow violent but also rather weak, an icy streak rather than a hot spike, sometimes reduced to flutes only. The rumbling bass motif (with a general upwards direction—a neat musical balance which allows the two themes to coexist more comfortably in parallel) is more successful, often providing the forward momentum than simple midi-sampled percussion (a Hulk motif all of its own, and possibly a little too insistent) cannot provide.
This isn't to say that Hulk is a poor score. Elfman's use of wordless voice (Natacha Atlas), no doubt partly inspired by the far more spare score Mychael Danna (Patrick Goldstein calls it 'ethereal' [Los Angeles times, 2003.06.24]), is a chief asset, and appears in many of its strongest moments - the dialogueless mass helicopter flight scene [5. Captured] and when he's free in the desert [13. Hulk's freedom] are the finest examples of Elfman given aural space and using it to his advantage. In fact the sparsity of dialogue and even sound effects is quite a catch for a composer of blockbuster movies. This was, as mentioned, to be Mychael Danna's honour, but after disappointing screenings, the director was forced to drop the score - no doubt a source of friction for Elfman, brought in at the last minute. In a situation that must have brought deja vu to the composer of Mission: Impossible, Elfman was elected to work with a distressed director on a film undergoing further tinkering, in hopes that he might turn a seemingly under-performing film into a smash. Whether or not Danna's score, like Silvestri's for M:I, would have proved the studio wrong is open to conjecture, but in both cases Elfman delivered to schedule and his contribution to both has rarely been criticised. Incidentally an element from Danna's score is retained and faithfully credited in the end credits. I digress, but the situation is important: Ang Lee, the director, was insistant that Danna's score was perfect for the film, and resented any "Elfmanism" being printed on the score. Perhaps this explains the 'ethnic' voice, the intensification of ethnic sampled percussion (and even the duduk) and the cooler, sometimes whistful, sometimes creepy style, but nevertheless, there is much here that is, ironically, very much the Elfman of today. The similarities of the main title to that of Red Dragon only a year previously are evident - there's is a hardness to the sound - brittle string textures, ominous bass instrumentation, short-lived driving rhythms, and an employment of a number of motifs that can be repeated endlessly in the style of Herrmann's Vertigo (et al). The use of flutes and the more languid moments of Hulk occasionally hark back to Elfman's coldest score, A simple plan. Only that 'ethnic' feel is very new, and even here an audience might mistake it for following the post-Gladiator style of nameless eastern influence, though I have a suspicion that Elfman's influences here, away from Danna, may be quite specific if he'd had the chance to make note of them. Danny's interest in world music and instruments is genuine and by now quite an established part of his recreational interest (the earliest interview I can find dates to 1987, with Oingo Boingo!).
Hardly a weak score, then, since it has a strong sense of identity, with genuine highlights that thrill the listener. Yet its coldness drives you away, widening the gap between audience and Hulk, and the listener and CD experience. On film the violent, brassy moments are lost since they are used predominently when Hulk is crunching scenery, but the score as a whole reflects the action and cutting very closely, and those opening credits invest the film with a sense of drama and urgency that help bridge the lethargy of it opening scenes - this is Elfman trying very hard; moments of repose, though, occasionally show signs of empathy, and one of the CD's best moments is its quietest: 13. 'The truth revealed' also uses wordless female voice, but here it feels intimate, not distant or alien, and the whole score hushes round it, sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing. There is only a ripple of direction, but for once the subtlety of the emotional exploration and timbre is enough to keep the listener on the edge of his seat.
This is a very difficult score to gauge, and for many listeners, Elfman fans included, it requires quite some work to listen to it for almost an hour away from the film. We may never get a clear picture of exactly how much Elfman was influenced by Danna's score or what he might have produced had he had more time and a more trusting director. But there are rewards, despite the feeling that perhaps the film itself lacked something Elfman just wasn't equipped to supply.
Score rating: * * *
CD rating: * *
N.B. It might be a good idea to miss the pop song final track. It ruins the atmosphere like no song since The frighteners was released. Whether it matches an original cue for electric guitars in Danna's score is open to conjecture but not relevant here.

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