Hollow Man

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay:Andrew W. Marlowe (story by Gary Scott Thompson and Andrew W.Marlowe)
Stars: Elisabeth Shue (Linda Foster), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Caine), Josh Brolin (MattKensington), Kim Dickens (Sarah), Greg Grunberg (Carter Abby), Mary Jo Randle(Janice), Joey Slotnick (Frank)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA

Ever since coming to the United States in the mid-1980s, Dutch director Paul Verhoevenhas worked unabashedly in the mainstream, working in broad, popular genres like sciencefiction ("RoboCop," "Total Recall," "Starship Troopers") and the psychological thriller("Basic Instinct").

If you can ignore his 1995 disaster "Showgirls," which would be the scarlet letter of hiscareer if it didn't have so much camp enjoyment, Verhoeven has crafted a sly body of workthat seems, on the immediate surface, to be pure Hollywood pulp. Yet, like AlfredHitchcock, a director with whom Verhoeven shares many traits, he embraces and subvertsthe mainstream at the same time. All of his films have fascinating subversive elements,some of which are noticeable during the first viewing, some of which emerge only withrepeat viewings. Like Hitchcock, Verhoeven is a master of entertaining an audience whilesimultaneously calling into question basic assumptions that are often taken for granted inAmerican life.

However, Verhoeven's most recent film, "Hollow Man," is mostly lacking in the satiricalsubtexts that have characterized most of his work. Possibly this is because the movie'stheme of the corrupting nature of scientific power is at least as old as Mary Shelly's"Frankenstein." And, while Verhoeven seems to be executing a subversive exploration ofthe fulfilled desire to engage in questionable behavior under the cloak of invisibility, themovie gets away from him in the final scenes and becomes a routine action/horror hybridthat is beneath his capabilities.

In "Hollow Man," the Dr. Frankenstein is Dr. Sebastian Craine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant(and arrogant) scientist who has developed a formula for invisibility (in the movie'spseudo-scientific terms, it causing objects to "phase shift out of quantum sync with thevisible universe"). After successfully applying the formula to a variety of animals,Sebastian decides to use himself as the first human guinea pig. Of course, this goes againstall sorts of medical ethics, including the fact that he lies about his findings and intentions tothe top brass at the Pentagon who fund his research.

It is hard to discuss any aspect of "Hollow Man" without first giving kudos to the specialeffects team that made the Sebastian's invisibility so utterly plausible. From the scenes ofSebastian becoming invisible, in which each layer of his body disappears, revealing the nextlayer until he is a slowly fading skeleton, to the scenes in which some vague outline of hisbody is made visible by water or steam, there is never a questionable moment in the film.Although Sebastian is invisible during three-fourths of the film, his presence can never beignored.

Sebastian's research team includes his ex-lover, Linda Foster (Elisabeth Shue), who is nowhaving a secret affair with another researcher, Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin). The lovetriangle aspect of the story is by far the weakest link, which is often the case inVerhoeven's films. Verhoeven is an excellent visual stylist with a fine sense of pacing and awicked sensibility, but his work with actors is often quite flat unless it is utterly cartoonish(I'm thinking here about the effective work of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct," which wassuccessful primarily because it was a wink-wink riff on hypersexual femme fatales thatbore no relation to reality).

Sebastian's research takes place in a highly secretive underground laboratory. The earlyscenes in Andrew W. Marlowe's ("End of Days") script give us all the information we needabout the laboratory and the research, which sets up the extended climax when Sebastianlocks the remaining members of his research team in the maze-like lab and begins to huntthem down one-by-one. It is something of a let-down that the film devolves into what isessentially a slasher flick, complete with several is-the-killer-dead-or-isn't-he moments.But, at the same time, this is what the story has been promising us from the get-go, so itwould have been almost a let-down had it not followed through.

The idea is planted early in the narrative that the invisibility formula may have negativeemotional and psychological effects on whoever uses it. Considering Sebastian's inherentlymean and selfish disposition, it is no surprise that he uses his newfound invisibility forincreasingly vicious purposes. What starts off as mere voyeurism and cruel pranks soonturns into sexual assault and then homicide. Sebastian becomes a slave to his own scientificdiscovery, murdering anyone who might spoil his plans. What those plans are, exactly, isnever made clear. But, we understand that, by the end of the film, Sebastian is simplyderanged with his own egotism, and the future probably matters very little to him.

With the basic set-up, Verhoeven is free to exercise what has become one of his chiefcinematic trademarks: sadism. This is probably the trait that Verhoeven shares moststrongly with Hitchcock. Both directors are almost frighteningly adept at luring theaudience into culpability with the misguided (sometimes sadistic) impulses of their(anti)heroes. While some critics decry this as detestable behavior, I see it as simply anartistic means of pointing out the dark side of us all. That we could feel tense wondering ifRusk, the serial killer in Hitchcock's "Frenzy" (1972), will get away with his evil deeds orfeel exhilarated watching through Sebastian's eyes as he creeps unseen into a woman'shouse is a strong sign of just how appealing evil can be.

If there is a subversive element of "Hollow Man," it is this: While the narrative proper endsin perfectly moral fashion with Sebastian getting his comeuppance (several times, in fact),there is still the lingering enjoyment of having been able to see through his eyes while heused his invisibility to malicious ends. While it is not nearly as effective as the future-punksocial satire of "RoboCop" (1987) or the fascist jokeiness of "Starship Troopers" (1997),the subtext of "Hollow Man" still brings a few questions to mind.

After all, who has never wondered what it would be like to be invisible and what could bedone with such a power? It is a tempting scenario, and as Sebastian puts it, "It's amazingwhat you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning." Inother words, invisibility becomes a means of not having to face yourself and your actionsanymore.

In "Hollow Man," invisibility becomes a means through which Sebastian can separatehimself from moral responsibility because, in a sense, he no longer exists; only his actionshave a physical reality than can be seen. The fact that Sebastian was something of a fiendto begin with is of little comfort because, while watching his actions, it is hard to deny thatthere would be a little voice inside us all that would try to convince us to do the exact samething.

It is unfortunate that Verhoeven lets the film get out of control in the final 20 minutes. Hestages an elaborate and admittedly heart-pounding action climax, but it dilutes the messageof the early sequences that featured Sebastian engaging in behavior with which a largepercentage of the audience could possible identify. In the end, Sebastian becomes toosimplistically evil, and the moral ambiguity that could have made this a truly disturbingexploration of human potential both good and bad is almost lost entirely.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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