Hollow Man (2000)

D: Paul Verhoeven
S: Elizabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon

Cheesy B-movie given the 'A' treatment by Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) and a team of special effects people (headed by Scott Anderson, Craig Hayes, and animation director Eric Armstrong). Ambitious, self-centred scientist Kevin Bacon perfects an invisibility formula and elects to test it on himself. Already pumped with delusions of godhood, he begins to go completely insane after days of tests conducted by his fellow scientists and several failed attempts to make him reappear as planned. After testing his limits with some groping, voyeurism, and rape (the latter truncated for reasons of taste in the final print, but who do you think you are kidding Mr. Verhoeven?), he moves up to murder and plans to roam free. Can former girlfriend and fellow researcher Elizabeth Shue stop him?

It has been a while since we've seen an invisible man movie. John Carpenter's stab at a reflective, sardonic, quasi-philosophical version Memoirs of an Invisible Man bombed, and the technical limitations of the craft still meant that it looked like lots of stuff moving about on wires. In the wake of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, it was probably inevitable that someone would have a go once again with the benefit of computer generated effects and digital replacement techniques.

And it works. Technically, Hollow Man is great stuff. Using Bacon's actual performance as a guide and his physical presence for bodily expression and gestural complexity, this is the best invisible man movie yet in terms of what you see of what you don't see. The effects people and screenwriter Andrew Marlowe have found plenty of ways to make their monster temporarily visible, not just with clothing wrapped around the body from time to time, but mists of steam, films of water, shrouds of flame, and rivulets of blood as the moment demands it. There are no wires in evidence and Bacon gives the character plenty of menacing presence both with his body and voice. The visual effects are terrific, though the same was once said of James Whale's film of The Invisible Man, which now offers little to students of special effects but still works as a movie. Hollow Man is unlikely to endure beyond the 'gee whiz' of the moment in which it has been made.

The film is a marvellous visual spectacle as horror thrillers go. It starts with some interesting anatomical imagery as the bodies of various animals are exposed and reconstituted bit by bit. These scenes are not as gory as expected, and seem rather like a dry biology lesson. There is a certain amount of 'standing around and looking' being done during these scenes in which the characters seem as awed by the visuals as the audience is supposed to be. This will date the film it badly when effects technology takes the next leap forward. Luckily Bacon gives us a nice sense of his character's physical torment during his own transformation scenes later on, and this makes these scenes at least a bit more narratively motivated. These spectacles are followed by lots of kinky titillation as Bacon goes wandering in and out of bedrooms and bathrooms (let's face it, any man who becomes invisible is going to try his hand at this kind of stuff pretty quickly, right?). This is a form of imagistic excitation for which director Verhoeven has recently become infamous (Basic Instinct, Showgirls), and the edited rape scene excepted, it's pretty mild. Eventually things move into action movie territory. Verhoeven loads it with strong, violent confrontation scenes filled with steely images of fire, water, and human faces which are distinctive and characteristic. The various evocations of the monster's presence are superb, filled with interesting details like falling water or wisps of pipe smoke which really impress. Finally the film reaches its extended climax with some narratively tedious stalk 'n slash scenes which topple the film right into the mechanical end of the genre. There is even a sequence where the characters try to track the invisible man with motion detectors which seems to come right out of Alien.

The film was always going to be generic though, so there's no surprise to the fact that it boils down to very little in the end. Marlowe and co-story author Gary Scott Thompson have included some moments which aspire to psychological insight, but really this is a bogstandard story of a mad scientist who turns into a out of control monster. The film has nothing to say about the corrupting influence of power that hasn't been said eight million times before, and the romantic/jealous lover sub-plot is pure window dressing. There are some nice ironic gags about medical ethics as Bacon realises he has become like the lab animals he cares so little about at the outset, but on the whole the shading of character motivation is black and white. Even the military/industrial complex types for whom this research is being conducted are made to seem benign. The only evil here is that which is obvious from the beginning, meaning that there really is nothing for an audience to do except sit back and enjoy the show if it is to their taste.

There is no compelling reason to see Hollow Man other than for students of special effects or undemanding punters looking for a night's entertainment. It is a well produced bit of old-fashioned hokum dressed up with low-level Verhoeven toughness (the violence is relatively restrained by comparison with Starship Troopers or Robocop, but there are a couple of unpleasant moments). Mostly it's a showcase for inventive ways of making an invisible man temporarily visible before he kills someone, which is kind of fun if you enjoy working out how they did it, but dull if you want a good story built around the action. Bacon is to be commended for his endurance as a performer, especially when people are going to think of it as a movie in which special effects do all the work. The rest of the performances are perfunctory but not amateurish, which keeps it from becoming a total 'B' movie, but there is one not very far under the surface here and most viewers will find it pretty transparent (sorry, had to say it, couldn't resist).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with modest features including a director's commentary, a short production documentary and several 'featurettes' which are really just bits which should have been part of the longer documentary in the first place. The supplementary material is good though insofar as it shows the details of how the impressive visual effects were achieved, because these are really the most interesting element of the movie.