UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF. — When fans of "The Hulk" got their first glimpse of the new, computer-generated monster during this year's Super Bowl, they reacted badly to what many called a giant green mistake.
Now that "Hulk" is ready to make his big-screen debut, after nearly six months of tweaking and refining, the big question still hangs over the green guy: Is he believable?
Audiences will decide for themselves when the $150 million comic-book extravaganza opens next Friday.
The film is directed by Taiwanese superstar Ang Lee, who made his mark with the ultimate Hollywood oxymoron, the lyrical action picture ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), so dramatic believability is more important than with most franchise films.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Lee's popcorn epic has high ambitions. "I'm bringing a great myth to life with modern technology," says Lee, scrunching his body into a tight ball, imitating the emotional tinderbox that he says is at the heart of his hero's story.
This physical state is not hard for the director to achieve. During production, Lee donned the motion- capture suit used by the computer team to map the monster's psychological turmoil. "The Hulk," he says, "represents the deep consciousness that we've all covered up to function."
When scientist Bruce Banner receives a lethal dose of gamma ray radiation, the force triggers a latent genetic mutation he inherited from his father, himself a scientist imprisoned by the military for experimenting with human DNA. Powerful emotions, particularly repressed memories about a mother and father he doesn't know, can send the entire genetic brew into green-guy overdrive. This is when Banner becomes the Hulk, unleashing a primal rage with which Lee says we can all identify.
The story, he adds, "is like a Greek tragedy," as both father and son battle the demons that have been unleashed from deep within their own souls.
"Ang said to us, 'Don't make him look like a gorilla,' " says Glenn McIintosh, the animation sequence supervisor from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the company who created the character. "Ang wanted the audience to know that this is a human being, just one that has never existed before."
The on-screen character "has to be as real as the actors," he adds. The image may be synthetic, he says, "but the performance is not."
Lee wanted the animators to focus on the kind of human details that would allow the character to be believable. "Ang said he wanted to make a delicacy," says Wilson Tang, visual effects art director at ILM. "He pushed us to create a whole new body language, to sculpt it with the muscle performance." At the same time, the 15-foot version of the Hulk is supposed to weigh 3,452 pounds with an 81-inch neck and 20-foot "wingspan."
Tang says the team focused on small areas, such as the eyes, to bring out nuances in the character.
As a result, the emotional complexities that riddle the human Banner remain when he becomes the Hulk. He is shy around the woman he loves (scientist Betty Ross, played by Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly), confused and angry with his father, and saddened by his own fate.
The challenge for the actors was simpler yet more frustrating. Scenes were filmed with a "green head on a stick" as a stand-in.
"There's always this unknown thing," says Sam Elliott, who plays the four-star general responsible for locking up Banner's father. (See editor's note, below) "There's the 'green guy,' " he says. "You have genius producers, writers, and director, but there's always this great unknown."
Elliott says audiences will have to suspend disbelief, the same way they did with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." "Just like you had to buy into the moment someone flew and they started fighting up in the treetops," he says, "you have to buy into the whole myth."
Producers Gale Ann Hurd and Avi Arad are counting on audiences to buy, in a big way - and not just the special effects. They have been working to bring the Hulk to the big screen for more than a decade, but say the timing is finally right. "The technology has never been there to bring to life this kind of vision," says Ms. Hurd. She points out that Lee inspired a sort of loyalty and hard work that Hollywood rarely sees.
Elliott says it all makes sense if you understand Lee's earlier movies. "Ang talked about the Hulk residing within all of us," says Elliott. "This was something we immediately understood," he says adding with a laughing reference to the sword in "Crouching Tiger," that this was all meant to be.
"This is just a continuation," Elliott says, "of [Lee's] 'green destiny.' "
(Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Sam Neill plays the four-star general.)