Director Paul Verhoeven had quite an eccentric filmography after breaking out with American audiences in the late 1980’s, perhaps more so than any other working at the time. Following his success with the classic satirical science fiction actioner Robocop in 1987, the Dutch born filmmaker went on to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990 blockbuster Total Recall, my favorite film from that Austrian action star. After this incredibly impressive one-two punch, Verhoeven made the controversial erotic thriller Basic Instinct, his biggest hit worldwide, followed by the notoriously goofy NC-17 flop Showgirls and 1997’s return to science fiction with Starship Troopers. Despite the inherent differences in subject matter and tone, all of these films share Verhoeven’s ability to make what might seem ridiculous work to a film’s advantage, ultimately making whatever he does immensely enjoyable (and yes, I include Showgirls in that statement). His 2000 effort Hollow Man has all the hallmarks to be expected from a Hollywood Verhoeven vehicle, lurid subject matter and some over the top performances. However, it play things a little more straight than the movies listed above (besides perhaps Basic Instinct depending on how you view that movie) and mires itself in generic thriller conventions instead of capitalizing on the promise of its own set-up.
Taking its inspiration as a modern update of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, Hollow Man stars Kevin Bacon as Dr. Sebastian Crane, an egomaniacal genius on the verge of a breakthrough in turning living beings completely invisible and back. After a successful trial brings a gorilla test subject back from transparency, Sebastian decides to keep the results a secret from his superiors and subject himself to the process. Rendered invisible and unable to successfully revert back to visibility due to a failed test, Sebastian goes on a rampage to stalk and kill his entire science team (led by Elisabeth Shue, who receives top billing in the credits) in the hopes that he will stay invisible.
The movie begins with a lot of promise and ultimately devolves into a standard thriller, where the cast is hunted down one by one. It leaves you unsatisfied with how it answers the main questions it brings up. The question does show promise, asking what any of us would do when freed from the constraints of being seen and thus, able to do whatever we desire. Sadly, this movie’s intentions aren’t in answering this question beside merely using it as set up for the conventional thriller it winds up being.
Sidetracking from this movie’s failings, it really should be said that the visual effects are outstanding. The scenes where we see the internal structure of a body without the flesh are quite a marvel to behold and work seamlessly in the context of the film even if they may seem somewhat quaint by today’s standards. The film succeeds on this level and its somewhat large budget ($95 million for a science-fiction thriller in the year 2000) is understandable to that end.
Ironically, the film’s biggest strength is Kevin Bacon’s performance and its greatest weakness is Kevin Bacon’s character. As Sebastian Crane, he acts like a jerk prior to being invisible and turns into a psychopath in a way that clumsily suggests he was that way all along. He isn’t really motivated by anything but this vague notion of being able to fulfill all his power hungry urges once invisible. By the time the second half of the movie rolls around, he is reduced to simply doing creepy and evil things because he has to for the plot to keep rolling along. Sure, there is a love triangle thrown in between the three leads (Josh Brolin taking up the final starring role) but it’s not done with enough conviction to make things suspenseful. More could have been done with the Sebastian Crane character to make him well rounded, if not likable, so that his transformation from egomaniacal scientist into murderous psychopath has room to progress and even somewhat tragic, making him into this brilliant mind who is seduced by the unlimited power his invention gives him instead of the jerky guy who acts even more jerky because he’s invisible now. Despite these problems, Kevin Bacon seems to be the only actor really having fun with this material. Technically, he doesn’t appear on screen for long stretches, but his voice maniacally toys with the rest of the cast in such a way that shows he is really relishing the role.
Hollow Man marks another foray for Paul Verhoeven into the realm of sci-fi, a genre in which he had great success prior to this film. While the beginning shows promise in setting up what this movie hopes to accomplish, it doesn’t juggle the ideas and elements needed given its classification (i.e. action, suspense) that it comes off as something of a disappointment. Robocop used its set-up and action scenes to accentuate a taut narrative about what it means to be human and satirize the influence of corporate America. Total Recall was an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie that kept you guessing as to what was truly happening in the story. Hollow Man buries anything that may be interesting about it in a second half full of rape and murder scenes without substance.
This movie plays as if Verhoeven had a desire to mesh his work in the Hollywood system together in one package. It has the underlying science fiction genre of Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers crossed with the thriller elements and sexual “deviancy” permeating Basic Instinct and Showgirls. The results are the most mixed of all the films mentioned in this article. It doesn’t even work in spite of itself like Showgirls does, a movie that is hard to defend as good on any merit but is surely more enjoyable to watch than this.
The failure of Hollow Man from a narrative standpoint comes as something of a surprise from a director whose best work comes from showing the good and bad aspects of the seedy underbelly of humanity, whether in future worlds or our very own. The seedy underbelly is here, to be sure, there’s just nothing here that elevates the movie above the trappings of a standard science-fiction thriller.
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