Published Aug 02, 2000Say what you will about Paul Verhoeven ("The 4th Man," "Starship Troopers"), whether his films are good or bad, they all have his distinctive imprint on them. His characters grab life by the throat - they don't speak except to yell or snarl, and if a guy and a girl are in the same room together, you can bet they'll be furiously disrobing each other in the blink of an eye. Dutch-born Verhoeven is the cinematic equivalent of a foreign exchange student who pinches girls' bottoms and hasn't entirely clued into North American notions of appropriateness. He's a consistently fascinating director because he always goes too far, and he does it with such a brazen lack of subtlety, he's able to wake contemporary audiences out of their stupor. This brings us to the case of his latest film, Hollow Man, a wall to wall special effects thriller that ends up being disappointing precisely because Verhoeven doesn't go overboard in exploiting the enticing premise.
Kevin Bacon plays an ambitious, "my-way-or-the-highway" scientist named Sebastian Caine (a terrific sci-fi name if I've ever heard one) who invents an invisibility serum that looks like nothing so much as a syringe full of orange Kool-Aid. He and his team already have cages full of invisible animals, but what they're stuck on is making them visible again. When they finally come up with a "visibility" serum (that looks like blueberry Kool-Aid), they test it on a 500 pound invisible gorilla who violently reappears vein by vein, muscle by muscle. This jaw-dropper of a scene, along with the one in which Bacon's body turns invisible layer by layer, are, as they say, worth the price of admission (as long as you've got a strong stomach).
Verhoeven and his crew have worked hard to make their invisible man a palpable, living, breathing entity, and they've succeeded on that level. In other respects, "Hollow Man" seems to have suffered from the castrating influence of the studio. The problem is partly the piss-poor script by hack writer Andrew W. Marlowe ("End of Days," "Air Force One"), although Verhoeven and his cast often manage to turn the clunky dialogue into a campy virtue. The main problem is that this movie doesn't have the balls to truly pursue the unsettling ramifications of what should have been its defining line of dialogue: "It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore."
There's a creepy, voyeuristic scene in which the now invisible Caine uses his first night on the prowl in the lab to cop a feel from one of his snoozing female lab partners (Kim Dickens). The kicker is that he actually hates her - it's firmly established that they have an acrimonious relationship, which somehow adds a seedier level to the physical violation. This kind of ethical discomfort (we hate ourselves for identifying with Caine) would have been interesting to pursue, but these tricky issues are only glancingly introduced, like a stone skipping across a lake. In the original trailers, "Hollow Man" was marketed as a spooky psychological thriller and suspiciously, there are scenes in that trailer that aren't in the movie. Somehow I get the sense that Verhoeven's hands were tied, and that, left to his own devices, he would have taken this material into more dangerous territory. In one sequence, Elizabeth Shue dreams that she's being undressed by the invisible man and she wakes up startled, but the scene cuts away abruptly before her reaction really registers. My guess is that Verhoeven, the king of political incorrectness, would have had an opinion on whether or not she liked it.
The emphasis in this movie, is just on pure spectacle. At some point, someone involved with this production threw up their hands and said, "Hell, let's just have the invisible guy chase the other scientists around the lab for the finale." And in that final showdown, the invisible Kevin Bacon just keeps getting doused with different kinds of liquids about every two minutes (it runs off of him like chocolate sauce on a sundae). So while there's certainly enough visual wizardry in "Hollow Man" to sell a lot of tickets, which I'm sure it will, I can't help feeling that there's a much more interesting movie on the cutting room floor. "Hollow Man" may be a pretty good thriller, but it's a lousy Paul Verhoeven movie.