In a movie as utterly dependent on its special effects as Hollow Man, the new thriller from director Paul Verhoeven, there’s a certain absurd element of high school theater to the proceedings.
The artists want so badly to impress us with their technical wizardry that they forget—or are incapable of providing—the dramatic touches that make capable art. Be it a very expensive shot of two characters—one of them partially invisible—taking a terrifying plunge down an elevator shaft, or be it the really cool drawing room set for Arsenic and Old Lace that everybody stayed up half the night building, all the audience sees is the creation. We’re left wondering how it was done instead of why; ostensibly, everything is done to tell a story that gets lost in the telling.
That’s the dilemma faced in Hollow Man by Verhoeven, whose career has been a wildly inconsistent run of campy (RoboCop), cheesy (Basic Instinct) and extremely clever (Starship Troopers, a sly $80 million anti-war allegory) filmmaking. He’s got some spectacular effects on tap in a film about an invisible man run amok. And though Verhoeven overlights everything in his trademark style, and though he tries to string the effects together with something other than a cookie-cutter plot with two-dimensional characters, he’s largely unsuccessful. That doesn’t make the film any less watchable—just less important.
Sebastian Caine (Bacon, whose own, uh, bacon makes its way into several shots) is an egghead scientist whose ability is matched only by his arrogance. With the Pentagon’s money, he has figured out how to make animals invisible in his Batcave of a lab. He’s having trouble figuring out how to make things reappear again, but he can’t wait for years of testing—he wants to try disappearing in some way other than starring in Stir of Echoes. “You don’t make history by following rules,” he says. “You make it by seizing the moment.”
So he goes through the really cool process of becoming invisible. He disappears by layers, with the skin, muscles, organs and skeleton all going in turn. The effects have a lovely, mesmerizing 1950s wave-of-the-future vibe to them as Caine becomes a living Da Vinci anatomical drawing.
But for reasons that remain murky, Caine then goes bonkers (or “gives in to his dark side,” as the film claims) and starts causing trouble for his staff, including his perky ex-girlfriend Linda (Elisabeth Shue), her perky new boyfriend Matt (Josh Brolin) and perky veterinarian Sarah (Kim Dickens).
Verhoeven keeps a misanthropic sense of humor throughout the picture. Though chills and starts abound, we’re also led to believe that a man who becomes completely invisible to the rest of the world would have no desire greater than to stalk, grope and generally mess with hot women. That’s more true than anyone would like to believe, and Verhoeven isn’t afraid to shove it in our faces.
True or not, it’s also not the kind of weighty diabolical mission that can actually carry a movie. Most of the film’s second half is an F/X sampler, with trick after trick dragged out for our amusement and then put away. Sadly, Caine never really thinks of anything clever to do with his power.
Verhoeven reportedly filmed a graphic scene in which invisible Caine rapes a woman, but he left it on the cutting-room floor; all we see is the beginning of an assault, with no resolution. In a sick way, that’s too bad. This film would have been better if Caine were allowed to be more sadistic. Things simply get a little dull, which is quite amazing considering the visual pyrotechnics at work.
Still, the invisible Caine is very real and very scary. Though the characters are sketches and the film resorts to an artificially punched-up climax, the image of a malevolent Caine gliding undetected through the world will remain with you—long after you’ve forgotten it was special effects that put him there.
Hollow Man (R) HH1/2 Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth Shue and Kim Dickens.