Hollow Man

Any movie calling itself Hollow Man dares to make itself the biggest critics’ target since A Goofy Movie. You’d think the filmmakers would do whatever they could to avoid cheap shots — by making the lead character as complex and human as possible. But no. This is yet another multi-million-dollar Hollywood thriller that has plenty of time for elaborate special effects (many of which are eye-popping) but very little time for characterization. The movie could be called Hollow People.

Does that matter? Do we go to see a big-budget invisible-man movie for its profound understanding of the human struggle? No, and if we agree we’re not here for that, then the movie had better at least be fun. Roughly the first half of Hollow Man is agreeably trashy, like an over-amped remix of David Cronenberg’s The Fly crossed with John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man. But once we see where it’s going — a showdown between the protagonist/villain and a rapidly dwindling team of former colleagues in a locked-down lab — we may sink into our seats in frustration. All this magical computer-generated whiz-bang, and they can’t do more with it than a climax ripping off your choice of slasher movies and Alien films?

Kevin Bacon, the poor guy, wrote an engaging two-part Hollow Man diary for Entertainment Weekly detailing the nightmarish preparations — the smelly latex, the tedious hours of CGI mapping — he had to endure to play the lead, Sebastian Caine, a military scientist looking for a way to make people invisible. Bacon went through such hell for the role that it almost breaks my heart to say all his effort comes to very little. It’s not his fault; the script (by Andrew Marlowe, of Air Force One and End of Days) won’t let him develop Sebastian in any meaningful way. He goes from being a two-dimensional obsessed scientist to a two-dimensional psycho once he’s invisible.

Sebastian’s loyal crew of scientists, including former flame Elisabeth Shue and her new lover Josh Brolin, are worried about him: They can’t find a way to make him visible again, and we’ve seen that lab animals who went invisible for too long became aggressive and violent. So, too, does Sebastian, who very quickly devolves from a voyeur and groper to a possible rapist-murderer (he pays a visit to a nearby woman; we never find out exactly what he does to her). Psychologically, Sebastian’s shift into evil might make better sense if he were a sexually repressed nerd, a loser jealous of his ex-lover’s new boyfriend, but Bacon plays the pre-invisible Sebastian as a virile scientist hunk simmering in his own ego. So we don’t feel that being invisible puts him in touch with his id, his darkest unacknowledged desires.

The unfairly ignored Memoirs of an Invisible Man, structured as a comedy, nevertheless tapped into curious areas of sadness as well as prurience; this may be the only time in film history that Chevy Chase has given a better dramatic performance than Kevin Bacon. The moment when Daryl Hannah renders Chase visible by gently applying foundation to his face is absurdly moving, and Hollow Man could have used more human touches like that. Instead, Bacon stalks around behind an expressionless latex façade, further underscoring Sebastian’s indebtedness to masked slasher-film psychos. Well, John Carpenter did that better, too.

Granted, you don’t expect subtlety from director Paul Verhoeven, the man who gave us RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers — most of which (I exclude the clownish Showgirls) are cheerfully over-the-top, winking at themselves and at the audience, and highly enjoyable. I don’t see Hollow Man joining the Verhoeven pantheon of well-loved trash. The becoming-invisible and becoming-visible-again scenes have some of Verhoeven’s charged-up showmanship; the rest of the movie is a lumbering haunted-house flick with an oddly sour, vindictive tone. Did Verhoeven think he was taking the moral aspects of invisibility seriously? A serious movie doesn’t give us peeks at naked women, as if we were pubescent boys, and a serious movie doesn’t have Elisabeth Shue announce “We’re gonna take him down” and punctuate it by cocking her gun. I like Verhoeven’s cheese as much as anyone, but this movie is the wrong kind of cheese.

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