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Empty Dumpty

“Damn it,” shouts Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a lonesome scientist burning the midnight oil: The answer to an elusive riddle has trumped him once again. Then he notices a beauty about to get naked in the apartment across the courtyard, but she shuts her blinds and eludes him as well. He repeats to himself with a smirk: “Damn it.”

These ping-ponging expletives are the first words we hear in Hollow Man, and they get things off to a crookedly funny start. Director Paul Verhoeven is at his most charming when he’s being playful (RoboCop), and at his most truthful (The Fourth Man) when he is probing the wicked playfulness of his characters. He can also be a clever and poetic visual narrator. Early in Hollow Man, after Dr. Caine successfully creates a serum that will turn people invisible, he celebrates with his team of scientists, among them his former lover Linda (Elisabeth Shue). She turns to share a laugh with him, only to find he’s vanished. He’s left his seat to get some air, but the way Verhoeven films it, Caine is a psychological absence even while he’s technically a part of the visible world.

If only the rest of the movie were as good as its cast, or as these little touches. “I want grandeur,” Caine tells Linda, by way of explaining his lust to be the first Invisible Man. It’s his only vulnerable moment; he charmlessly mistreats everybody on the staff, Linda included. “You’re not God: I am,” he tells his right-hand man — and Linda’s current lover — Matt (Josh Brolin). This Faustian arrogance spells out the movie’s big theme, and Caine’s looming comeuppance, in neon block letters, but it’s uttered without passion or magnetism. (One thinks of Alec Baldwin in Malice, thundering: “You think I have a God Complex? . . . I am God,” a demonic construction so comic and a delivery so charismatic you can readily accept that some fools might mistake it for gospel. Try as they might, Bacon and Verhoeven never come close to such flamboyance.)

As Caine bullies Linda and Matt into letting him test the invisibility compound without the knowledge of their Pentagon sponsors, and transparently lies to the rest of their colleagues, I found myself wondering why anybody would believe in this guy, much less do his bidding. Perhaps Verhoeven is fashioning a parable about fascism, showing us how even intelligent people will follow the strongest voice in the room, but this remains murky. The transformation in Caine’s character once he turns invisible — making the leap from mean to murderous — is boringly predictable. The ascending struggle to capture him, undo his transformation, and/or escape the climactic trap he’s built by sealing his team into the underground lab, proceeds from cliffhanger to cliffhanger without a tremor of dramatic resonance. When Caine sneaks into the apartment of his naked neighbor, one isn’t even sure what happens: rape, murder, both? And when we’re clear about a scene’s outcome, such as when Caine attacks his Pentagon boss in a backyard pool, the impact is flattened by a lack of emotional conflict. Any sense of a man struggling painfully against a growing monstrosity in himself — the interior quicksand that gave Cronenberg’s The Fly its poignance — is entirely absent in Hollow Man.

The effects are excellent, snore. Arresting as it is to watch a gorilla turn visible, blood vessel by blood vessel, or to watch a man disappear by stages, like an anatomy chart come to life, such spectacles are fairly status quo and of no lasting interest if the related transformations of character aren’t equally dazzling. Writer Andrew W. Marlowe (sharing story credit with Gary Scott Thompson) has a fine knack for he-she dialogue. When the vanished Caine taunts Linda: “Ever wonder what it’d be like to make love to an invisible man,” she shrugs: “I’m sure it’d be like old times.” But the film’s climax detonates an arsenal of unintentional laugh lines. “C’mon, I heard an explosion,” Linda tells Matt, after the lab’s been blowing up for nearly half an hour. Or, “You’re losing blood but he didn’t hit any organs!” — a sentence spoken more for our benefit than for that of the poor fool spitting up on the laboratory floor.

The film’s one authentic tension revolves around the love triangle. When Linda and Matt are larking about in her bed, we’re briefly in contact with the great and playful Verhoeven of yore. His defining gift is for unlocking a merry, sexy spontaneity in actors, and for a lovely instant she and Brolin enter those zones formerly occupied by Rutger Hauer and Monique Van Der Ven in Turkish Delight, Jeroen Krabbé and Rene Soutendijk in The Fourth Man. When Caine — invisible on the fire escape and seeing where things stand for the first time — furiously reacts, we’re given a taste of an archetypal male rage, of a piece with our hero’s voyeurism, that might have given Hollow Man an inside — and made it more mythic, and more genuinely terrifying than the harum-scarum theme ride it ends up becoming. Such rich possibilities elude Verhoeven as decisively as grandeur eludes Caine. Damn it, indeed.

HOLLOW MAN | Directed by PAUL VERHOEVEN Screenplay by ANDREW W. MARLOWE Produced by DOUGLAS WICK | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide


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