To listen to Slate's Spoiler Special about The Happening, click the arrow button on the player: You can also click here to download the MP3 file, or you can subscribe to the Spoiler Special podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.
So, it's a shame that the movie decided to split the difference by turning out incredibly, colossally… OK. There's nothing wrong with Leterrier's slick, fast-paced direction or with Norton's performance as Bruce Banner, the tormented scientist who turns into a rampaging green giant when he's angry. (If you don't have enough familiarity with the character to know why, the montage under the opening credits confers a hasty degree in gamma-ray pseudoscience.) Tim Roth makes for an adequate villain as Emil Blonsky, an elite soldier with a Faustian curiosity about Banner's capacity for transformation. (It's the second role Roth's done in the past year in which his body miraculously begins aging backward. Is Mr. Orange secretly Merlin the wizard?) Although the new Hulk, like his 2003 counterpart, is entirely computer-generated, the technology has progressed enough that he no longer resembles an action figure carved from lime Jello.
After a jaw-dropping opening shot of Rocinha, a vast cliff-side slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we find Banner living incognito in a hovel there, employed at a soda bottling plant and studying anger control with a Brazilian yogi. But it's no use; when a U.S. Army team led by Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) bursts in to kidnap him for weapons research, Banner morphs into the familiar behemoth in torn trousers. (An ongoing gag about how he shops for those size-shifting pants is one of the few good jokes in this often-somber film.) From there, the film is a rhythmic (some might say soporific) flow of ever-louder action set pieces, escalating to a smackdown in Harlem, N.Y., between the Hulk and his nemesis, the vaguely reptilian Abomination.
Other observations culled from this two-hour onslaught of stimuli: The Hulk's transition from an amoral destructive force to a fighter for right happens too suddenly and without sufficient motivation. Liv Tyler, who plays Banner's biologist girlfriend Betty Ross, appears to be made of marzipan—sweet, pliant, and utterly bland. Tim Blake Nelson, the Don Knotts of his generation, kills in a small part as a socially awkward scientist eager to help the couple. And Robert Downey Jr., who pops up as Iron Man's Tony Stark in a cross-promotional cameo late in the film, is such a diabolical cad he makes the slender, diffident Norton look like a choirboy.
It's been nearly a year since the last Slate summer-movie reader contest, in which contestants sent in their ideas for menacing action-movie one-liners ("Veni, vidi, vici, sugarplum."). The Incredible Hulk's curious status as a franchise reboot raises an obvious question: What blockbuster made in the last five years would you remake now, how would you cast it, and why? I'll dig through the office storage room for an appropriately unoriginal prize and publish the results late next week. Responses must be fewer than 100 words (much fewer would be nice) and must arrive in my inbox, firstname.lastname@example.org, by Tuesday, June 17, at 10 p.m. ET.