Hollow Man (2000) **
When Paul Verhoeven first started making English-language movies for the American market in the mid-1980’s, it looked like a major new talent had arrived on the scene, and would be continuing to shake things up for many years to come. Flesh and Blood/The Rose and the Sword, Verhoeven’s 1985 medieval adventure film, remains among that subgenre’s crowning glories more than fifteen years later, while his 1987 RoboCop had— deservedly— such an impact on the then-waning dystopian sci-fi genre that it continues to spawn crappy direct-to-video knockoffs even today. (How many Mandroid and Cybertracker films are there now?) But Total Recall demonstrated that Verhoeven was already beginning to run out of steam at the turn of the 90’s. Then he met Joe Eszterhas, and it was all downhill from there. There is no goddamned reason at all why the highlight of a two-hour movie about ice pick-wielding, bisexual serial killers ought to be a one-second Sharon Stone upskirt shot. Nor was it necessary, two years later, for the Verhoeven-Eszterhas team to spend another two hours proving that hundreds of naked women can, in fact, be boring. And it would appear that a good deal of Eszterhas’s suck rubbed off on his partner, because Verhoeven’s movies haven’t gotten any better since the two ended their collaboration. A friend of mine once eloquently described Starship Troopers as “‘Melrose Place’ vs. Aliens,” and that’s honestly not a bad way to put it. Now, with Hollow Man, Verhoeven continues his lavishly produced losing streak into the 2000’s.
Actually, the movie is a little bit better than that makes it sound, but only— I repeat, only— because of a potentially classy premise and the eye-candy value of its astonishing special effects. Our first look at those comes mere seconds into the film, as a mouse wanders the halls of some futuristic paramilitary laboratory setup, only to be grabbed, held aloft, and bitten in half by some invisible thing with enormous teeth— we know about the teeth because the mouse’s blood renders them visible, floating in mid-air in front of the animal’s hovering carcass. It’s a spectacular intro, and it establishes beyond question that this is not going to be your grandfather’s invisible man movie. It turns out that the mouse-eater is a gorilla who has been made invisible by hotshot scientist and complete asshole Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon, from Tremors and Friday the 13th). Caine has been hired by the Pentagon to develop a way to make things and people invisible by pulling their molecules out of phase with the rest of the universe— in essence, we can’t see them because they’re not quite there. (Why the process doesn’t also weaken the invisible things’ ability to interact with the world in other ways is anybody’s guess.) As the invisible gorilla shows, Caine and his team have been very successful, with one important caveat: they can’t figure out a way to make things visible again! This is a problem not just for the obvious reason that having a bunch of invisible apes running around is a huge pain in the ass, but more importantly because all sorts of bad things start happening to the animals after they’ve been invisible for too long. First of all, they become incredibly irritable and violent (which kind of makes you question the sense of using fucking gorillas as test subjects), doing things like biting mice in half for no good reason. Then, after a few more days, their molecules decide they’ve had enough, and the transparent beasts melt into puddles of invisible slime. Because the implication here is that what the Pentagon really wants is invisible people, this is clearly unacceptable. (Though what, precisely, they want those invisible people for is never even hinted at, beyond the fact that this is the Pentagon, so it can’t possibly be good.)
Then one day, Sebastian’s colleague and ex-girlfriend Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue, of Leaving Las Vegas) calls him at home to tell him that his other colleague (and her new boyfriend) Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin, of Mimic, who’d probably like to forget that he was also in Thrashin’) has made a gigantic breakthrough. He’s turned something visible again. Caine rushes to the lab, and we meet the rest of the team. Sarah Kennedy (Kim Dickens) is “the best veterinarian out there” and her main function in the movie is to give Caine shit about how he treats his animals. Frank Chase (Joey Slotnick of Idle Hands) is your basic faceless second-string movie scientist, and apparently the team’s computer wizard. Janice Watson (Mary Randle) is the saucy token black, a lab technician whose role often veers dangerously close to comic relief. Finally, there’s Carter Abbey (Greg Grunberg, from Witchcraft V: Dance with the Devil). Frankly, I have no idea what his job is supposed to be— all we ever really see him do before the shit hits the fan is look at porno mags. With the team thus introduced, the effort begins to restore the invisible ape to proper synchronicity with the universe. This is really one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The ape is injected with some glowing orange fluid (they have to spray-paint her arm to find a vein) and slowly becomes visible, starting with her circulatory system. Fucking wow. Kensington’s technique clearly needs some fine-tuning, because the gorilla almost dies of a heart attack, but the underlying principle, at least, is proven to be sound.
But strangely enough, when Caine goes to make his presentation to Dr. Howard Kramer (William Devane, from The Dark and such latter-day made-for-TV classics as Doomsday Rock and Timestalkers) and the rest of his bosses, he neglects to mention anything about his recent success. This is because Caine, in true mad scientist fashion, won’t be satisfied until he has made himself invisible. Somehow, he manages to convince Linda and Matt to go along with his stupid idea, and more importantly to risk their careers by joining him in lying to the Pentagon. Obviously, something has to go disastrously wrong at this point, and here, at least, Hollow Man does not disappoint. Caine makes himself invisible (see if you can spot why the special effect depicting this is utterly illogical), but at the end of the three-day experimental period, Kensington’s formula doesn’t make him visible again. Apparently, gorillas somehow differ from humans on the quantum mechanical level! Now, given that all the experimental animals thus far treated have gone violently nuts, and given that Caine is an egomaniacal shitheel with absolutely no respect for anyone but himself to begin with, what do you suppose might happen when, ten days later, his colleagues still haven’t found a way to turn him visible again?
Good guess, there. Monster rampage it is. He starts by playing sleazy pranks on his teammates (feeling Sarah up while she sleeps, for example) and then graduates to more overtly sociopathic stuff like killing the lab animals and sneaking out of the compound to rape the pretty woman who lives in the apartment across the street from him. Finally, when Linda has a sudden attack of scruples and goes with Matt to tell Dr. Kramer what Caine has done, the invisible maniac kills Kramer and sets his sights on the rest of his team. From this point on, Hollow Man devolves into a dismal hybrid of Alien, Predator, and The Deep Blue Sea.
I think Verhoeven’s big problem is that his mainstream breakthrough with RoboCop convinced him that success through excess was the winning formula for him. Unfortunately, he seems to have missed the point that RoboCop’s undeniable excesses were wedded to an intelligent, witty, groundbreaking story and a solid cast of talented non-stars with a strong feel for the material. At best, Hollow Man has a couple of interesting ideas— the best of them being that Caine becomes a monster not so much because the invisibility serum drives him mad as a side-effect, but because his invisibility frees his self-centered arrogance and delusions of grandeur from the constraints of conscience. As Caine himself says, “You’d be amazed what you can do when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror.” But instead of crafting a thoughtful, in-depth examination of this premise, Verhoeven takes the easy way out, and spends the last third of the movie blowing shit up and having the characters assault each other with crowbars. Caine’s inexplicable transformation into an indestructible Jason Voorhees figure at the climax is especially tiresome. Hollow Man remains passable on the strength of its effects and the interesting idea at its core (and I suspect there are those who might consider the frequent display of a semi-visible Kevin Bacon’s CGI-enhanced johnson an attraction as well), but its oafish last act and overall willingness to favor special effects bombast at the expense of its own story keeps it from being any more than that.