Just a few minutes into Hollow Man, my jaw hit the floor. Paul Verhoeven, who advanced the technique of computer animation by requiring scores upon scores of alien bugs to do interplanetary battle with a human army in Starship Troopers, now turns the same fearsome energy loose on the interior of the human body. He’s directed an invisible-man story that’s decided we should see the man’s physical form disappear from view one layer at a time, taking us on a visual tour of guts, organs, and sinew. I’m not a fan of CGI, but the intricacy of these visions are really something — gross enough to make me wince a little, but beautiful enough that I hardly want to blink. At that point, I swear, I was hoping I’d walk out of the theater convinced that Hollow Man would rate as one of my favorite movies of the year.
The idea is sound — I even like the title, a double entendre with some literary pedigree that hints at the moral bankruptcy of protagonist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a government researcher who can’t resist pulling some improper strings to test out his invisibility formula on himself. For a fellow of uncertain moral fiber and lightweight deviance, the resulting freedom to take advantage of others is an invitation to depravity. Directed by Paul Verhoeven? Oh, yes, that does sound good.
Well, sort of. Ever since RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven has managed to disappoint me. However, despite my initial distaste for Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and especially Showgirls, I’ve found myself returning to the films on videotape, DVD, and late-night cable. Beyond the de rigeur smugness — and Verhoeven’s unfortunate choice of Joe Eszterhas as collaborator — repeat viewings show that there’s something comforting in the very absurdity of these films. It could well be that Verhoeven is deliberately mocking the whole of film history, and I’m just too uptight to laugh at the joke. Going into Hollow Man, I figured if Verhoeven could recapture the caroming menace of his earlier films, it could be a provocative break from predictable summer fare.
Despite a fairly terrific half-hour or so, punctuated by those astonishing special effects as well as a sense of percolating evil, Hollow Man eventually fizzles. Sexual jealousy is the driving force behind Caine’s ultimate madness (he carries a torch for pretty scientist Elisabeth Shue), and the characters just aren’t strong enough to sell the relationships. Some crafty action scenes could have picked up the slack, but the latter half of Hollow Man is long on look-what-we-can-do imagery and short on logic and tension.
Verhoeven’s approach to the material is straightforward in most respects, save for a few violent flourishes. What stands out is that he can’t help slipping into confrontational mode when it comes to matters of sexuality. Verhoeven plays the voyeur card in the early reels, when we learn that Caine’s apartment is situated conveniently opposite that of a woman who has a habit of undressing in front of the window. Bacon does everything but bite his knuckles Porky’s-style to signal his unwholesome lust for this Playboy-caliber, purple-underwear-clad girly. Once he becomes comfortably invisible, he first feels up a sleeping co-worker (in what feels like a 21st-century update of Barbara Hershey’s most embarrassing role in The Entity, her naked breast is manipulated using CGI), and then decides to pay the neighbor a visit. His escapade moves quickly from the playful to the sadistic, and the camera cuts away just as what we can only assume is a full-on rape begins. It comes across not as coy, but condescending — in his mercy, Verhoeven, auteur terrible of the American cinema, has chosen to spare us the details.
In retrospect, I thought maybe Verhoeven was trying to mock me, the viewer, Haneke-style, for my alleged arousal at the prospect of rape. Fair enough, except that I don’t need Paul freakin’ Verhoeven, celebrity spokesman for celluloid murder and rape, to tsk-tsk my bloodlust or my hard-ons. (OK, when Michael Powell did it in Peeping Tom it carried some weight.) However, not only does Verhoeven turn away from the act itself, his film never again considers the apparent crime, its aftermath, or its ramifications. Verhoeven thus misses this opportunity to ramp up tensions between Caine and his scientist pals, who would benefit from the knowledge of what a sick bastard he has become. Further, in declining to follow through on his provocation, Verhoeven actually lets the audience off the hook.
Compare Verhoeven to Brian De Palma, for instance, whose best moves — the endings of Blow Out and Carrie, or the drill-through-the-floor routine in Body Double — make you feel absolutely used. Verhoeven’s style is that of a lecher rather than a pervert. He gives you sickness with a nudge and a wink, whereas De Palma remains largely uncompromising on his own terms. Both Verhoeven and De Palma are severely limited filmmakers, but De Palma’s use of nudity and grand guignol imagery to express ideas in purely visual terms seems altogether less self-conscious than Verheoven’s, which ostentatiously tweaks the audience’s sensibilities while serving up fairly conventional mayhem. I prefer the high melodrama of RoboCop to anything Verhoeven’s done before or since, largely because the script remains the craftiest satire he’s ever gotten his hands on but also because the story plays out with a ferocity and singlemindedness that’s missing from his later work.
That said, there are a couple of moments in Hollow Man that hint at the gravity of the title character’s behavior. But they’re fleeting, and the last half hour or so is dominated by the modified slasher movie scenario memorably advanced by Alien, in which the members of a disparate and bitchy group are picked off one by one by a nasty and largely unseen villain. (Compared to Alien, which criticized the military-industrial complex, made points about class relations on board the spaceship, and defied expectations by placing a woman in the hero role, Hollow Man has absolutely nothing on its mind.)
The final set piece, which involves an elevator shaft, is no less inventive than your average Hollywood action pic, and Verhoeven directs it credibly. However, it has nothing to do with the themes of the story so far, seems better suited to a Terminator movie than an invisible-man yarn, and fails even to make good on what I thought was some pretty obvious foreshadowing of final-reel nastiness. The movie that Hollow Man could easily have been, given Verhoeven’s track record, makes the sheer banality of what wound up on the screen this time awfully frustrating. C+