The Incredible Hulk - Original Motion Picture Score Double-Disc Edition Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

The Incredible Hulk - Original Motion Picture Score Double-Disc Edition Soundtrack Review

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After broadly lambasting the director Louis Leterrier's theatrical cut and its musical score, it may seem slightly surprising that I have now elected to dissect and review its CD soundtrack - and in its mammoth double-disc edition, to boot - but I feel that I have unfinished business with The Incredible Hulk. A film that I so wanted to enjoy but was bored and unmoved by; a score from a composer whose dense, melancholic voice I normally revel in that left me tired and drawn and still unmoved by - what had gone wrong?

With heavy and intensely moody scores for Plunkett And Macleane, The Bone Collector, Kiss Of The Dragon and World Trade Centre, Craig Armstrong is among the more dour of composers, a tunesmith who actively seeks out and enjoys the tragedy of a story. The decision to employ him as composer for a big budget Marvel blockbuster seemed an odd one, initially. But with the film ploughing overly-earnest and cloyingly plaintiff themes of guilt, repression, duality and forbidden love over wham-bam, “Hulk Smash!” wrath 'n' thunder, he now seems the perfect choice. What is immediately apparent from listening to his score again, is the sheer determination he has to mine the inner turmoil of Bruce Banner and, whilst I still think Edward Norton failed to do such private hell any kind of justice on-screen, Armstrong is at considerable pains to make up for it with his music.

Divorced from a film that I didn't much care for, the score actually reveals a lot more depth, personality and drama on disc. Armstrong builds a hugely impressive wall of sound that feels weighty, dense and strong. Yet this imposing power is balanced by that unavoidable melancholy, the aching pathos of Bruce Banner's quest for a cure and his lonely fugitive state, cut off from the one he loves and on the run from a belligerent military. This translates into the main theme that so annoyed me during the movie, yet the puzzling thing is that the effect, sans visuals, is a little different. Eschewing his normal choral embellishments, Armstrong writes for strings and thunderous percussion. His main themes - for the horribly self-conscious Norton's Bruce, for the Hulk, for the Abomination (Tim Roth) and for the relationship between Bruce and Betty (Liv Tyler) - are largely interchangeable, as parts of each separate identity invade and assimilate the others “Thing”-style frequently over the course of the score. Tragedy, pathos and outright misery are the order of the day and Disc One is shot through with the stuff.

Ordinarily, I would go through the album, track by track, but considering the vast number of tracks on offer here that would be utterly impractical, plus there is the fact that these main themes tend to bleed through an awful lot of them rendering the score somewhat repetitive. Now, this repetition of themes can work extremely well in some cases - The Delta Force (reviewed recently), for example, whose reliance upon motif reinforcement becomes its most highly enjoyable quality - but can begin to swallow up certain other scores and halt the momentum rather than enhance it. Armstrong's music for The Incredible Hulk comes perilously close to performing the latter - it certainly does in the film, anyway which can often get bogged-down by its lack of tonal variety - but the full album gets by this by virtue of its resonant and detailed texture. Armstrong layers his compositions with his now customary blend of earnest strings, surging percussion, well-integrated electronica and strong rhythms. Swift percussive beats remind of Elfman's many superhero scores - though suspiciously less so regarding his own musical interpretation of the Hulk for Ang Lee - and there is constant motion throughout, leading to a driving sense of anger bubbling away just beneath the surface that is even felt during the softer, quieter sections. The downside of such continual atmospherics and thematic character play is that the score - particularly as heard on the more self-pitying Disc One - can become turgid and depressing.

Thank God, then, that Armstrong is more than capable of delivering some exciting set-pieces to break the monotony. Tracks such as Favela Escape, That Is The Target, They're Here and Give Him Everything You've Got increase the pulse and provide a cathartic release from the pent-up misery that dominates the rest of the first disc. These tracks don't do anything revelatory in action terms, but they do smash and pummel their way out of the tense doldrums that seek to contain the score - and, in this way, Armstrong definitely taps into the Hulk mythos of a raging beast locked within a conscience-stricken man. When he lets rips, there is a kind of primal euphoria that almost makes the waiting worthwhile. The first disc also sees the little musical homage that Armstrong pays to Joe Harnell, the late composer of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series. His original and beautiful piano-motif “The Lonely Man” appears here with a nostalgic nod, but it is admittedly so brief that, really speaking, it may as well have been left out altogether. Fans of Harnell's music may like to know that his estate are releasing limited editions of his scores to the show as well as other celebrated compositions of his genre creations.

Whilst the theme for Bruce and Betty just compounds the yearning seriousness of it all - with no altering of tone or instrumentation to elevate the emotions even slightly - the Abomination makes his presence felt on Disc Two, and this is where the album is saved from what could have devolved into pure tedium. Although there is still plenty of the moody, anxious stuff going on here, Armstrong's ominous clouds of woe give way to mean pounding, bad-ass, Gamma-jazzed symphonic grunge as Roth's obsessed super-soldier becomes the bigger, nastier Abomination and, ultimately, the two knuckle-headed ogres go toe-to-toe.

Track 5, Abomination Alley, hits the ground running and doesn't look back. With some of those John Powell/Jason Bourne electro beats, some distinctly Elfman-style primitive percussion (think the Main Title from his Planet Of The Apes score) and some nice shrieking strings, the exo-skeletal beast initial rampage is full of bestial vigour and presents a frighteningly cool propensity for pulverising. The pace, overall, becomes stronger now - not necessarily faster - and more measured. Once the Hulk's nemesis-cum-rival has appeared, there is a sure sign of things building up to a head. The themes linking each track now posses more force and direction and less of an obvious wallowing in grief, whereas earlier they seemed to drift through swirls of morbid fascination much too often. A lengthy section of cues, that in the film cover Bruce's arrival in New York and meeting with Stern in his laboratory, are slow but insistent, nicely portentous of the confrontation that will soon come. Track 13, Blonksy Transforms, marks the great turning point for the score from humanist frustration to full-on armour-skinned heroism and sacrifice and the next four tracks furnish the score with enough bombastic bass and percussion to satisfy any furious-action-junkie. There is a flurry of heavy-hitting and the bass string and cello theme for the Hulk grinds through sinuously twisting violins that serve to remind us that diminutive Bruce is still in there somewhere. Tumbling brass enforces the Abomination's delight in chaos and, without doubt, the highpoint of the score has arrived. Quite clever, in fact, is the way that Armstrong interweaves all the main themes into these battle sequences and this is something that is possibly hard to spot in the film, itself, what with all the destruction going on. But, and this is the downside that I, however, did spot - this skilful and inspired approach still means that Armstrong is employing the same music over and over again, not even allowing the bristling, carnage-rife sections of the score their own completely unique identity. On album, though, with your score-loving and composition-appreciative ears switched on, you can't help but admire the complexity of such layering.

The rest of the score plays on familiar turf, but it is noticeable that those melancholy veins have now been slightly diluted with hope, injected with a stronger and more determined strain of, admittedly still heavy, nobility, the poignancy and pathos of Bruce's dilemma having now shifted from fear and self-loathing to awareness and control. It should be stated that this album includes a track for a scene that is not in the theatrical cut of the movie, but will probably be seen in the extended (by a potential 70-minutes) home video version. This cue, Track 1 The Arctic, is actually quite a nice opening statement of powerful mystery and suspense that, perhaps, unavoidably greets the percussive weight of the Hulk by its close. We also get two full versions of The Hulk Theme - both of which close out a disc apiece. The synth-based one from Disc 2 played out the movie, whilst the other is a stronger and more satisfying orchestral rendition. Certainly, there is all the music here that appeared in the cinema-cut of the film - and a little more besides, with a couple of suites here and there that employ more material again - but whether or not there will be an actual extension to the score with the longer cut remains to be seen. For now, though, this is all a Craig Armstrong fan could hope for.

It should also be said that, in an interesting turn of events, Armstrong actually found that he had little time to write this large-scale score and, with an orchestra of seventy-three musicians at his disposal in Seattle after a whistle-stop barnstorming session in LA, that he accomplished such a huge amount of strongly thematic material is all the more remarkable. However, tempering this feat is the unavoidable fact that much of the score is samey - both tonally and instrumentally. Although predominantly orchestral, the use of deeply-ingrained electronic augmentation, a la John Powell, can become wearisome and the overall feel of the score is relentlessly serious and downbeat. Though, I have to admit, the listening experience on disc is a much more rewarding one once you can discern the often inspired texturing that the composer achieves with his themes. Enhancing the mystique of this score still further is Armstrong's, Leterrier's and Marvel's decision to release it as a “press-to-order” CD-r available solely from Professionally produced and packaged, this somewhat unusual approach to a long and complex score does not hamper the quality of the finished article one iota. In fact, The Incredible Hulk sounds absolutely terrific, with scintillating detail and tremendous power throughout.

A little sadly, we merely get a 4-page booklet of photos and album credits in lieu of a detailed assessment of the score and its orchestration. I would have liked some words from Armstrong, himself, to expand on his theme creation here and why he and Leterrier elected to drop his trademark choral harmonies which, I think, would have helped the emotional elements of the score considerably. The Bruce/Betty relationship, as depicted in the film, is crying out for just such accompaniment to take it to the places that the string section alone cannot reach.

Overall, folks, in a something of a turnaround considering my comments in the cinema review of the movie, I'm impressed by what Armstrong has accomplished here. It isn't a classic score - far from it - but it has a lot more going for it than I first thought. I can't help but think that Craig Armstrong boxed himself into a corner with his reliance on his main themes - relentlessly hammering away at them until they permeated every corner of the score - but there is a grim power at work here that, love it or loathe it, perfectly captures the plight of Leterrier's Hulk. This whopping double-disc release gets a 7 out of 10 from me for texture and tenacity.

Track Listing

Disc 1:

1. The Arctic 2:47

2. Main Title 2:39

3. Rocinha Favela 3:11

4. A Drop of Blood 1:35

5. The Flower 2:50

6. Ross' Team 1:33

7. Mr. Blue 1:03

8. Favela Escape 3:36

9. It Was Banner 1:32

10. That Is the Target 5:34

11. Bruce Goes Home 1:25

12. Ross and Blonsky 3:15

13. Return to Culver University 2:39

14. The Lab 1:17

15. Reunion 3:37

16. The Data/The Vial 1:20

17. They're Here 3:07

18. Give Him Everything You've Got 6:08

19. Bruce Can't Stay 1:54

20. First Injection 1:03

21. Is It Safe? 1:07

22. Hulk Theme 3:59

Disc Time: 57:11

Disc 2:

1. Saved from the Flames 0:53

2. Grotto 2:53

3. Arrival at the Motel 1:48

4. I Can't 2:15

5. Abomination Alley 3:56

6. Bruce Found 2:52

7. Bruce Looks For the Data 1:05

8. NYC Cab Ride 1:17

9. The Mirror 1:18

10. Sterns' Lab 4:17

11. Bruce Darted 3:00

12. I Want It, I Need It 1:36

13. Blonsky Transforms 1:16

14. Bruce Must Do It 2:11

15. Harlem Brawl 3:51

16. Are They Dead? 2:40

17. Hulk Smash 2:25

18. Hulk and Betty 1:50

19. A Tear 1:01

20. Who's We? 0:56

21. The Necklace 1:44

22. Bruce and Betty 5:06

23. Hulk Theme (End Credits) 3:59

Disc Time: 54:09

Total Album Time: 111:20I may have done Craig Armstrong a disservice in my original review for the cinema release of The Incredible Hulk as my newfound appreciation for his score, here, now shows. This is, without doubt, a colossal piece of work that, whilst certainly not the best or, indeed, the most versatile of superhero scores around, is still a thematically impressive tour de force. There is grandeur here and a rogue sense of primal rage. Armstrong's strength lies in his dedication to strong thematic resilience and aural violence and it is most assuredly his many action cues that work best for me. I still have a problem with the maudlin voice that keeps dirging its way through the score - somehow, for me, it just doesn't pack in the kind of emotion that gets to me - but this element is a necessarily huge part of the bigger picture. My advice for fans is to get this whilst you can. Although there are no official indications of this being a limited release - like so many worthwhile soundtracks are these days - it is hard to imagine that Amazon and Marvel will keep on producing copies on this basis for long.






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