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 hes 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 hes vanished. Hes left his seat to get some air, but the way Verhoeven films it, Caine is a psychological absence even while hes 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. Its his only vulnerable moment; he charmlessly mistreats everybody on the staff, Linda included. Youre not God: I am, he tells his right-hand man and Lindas current lover Matt (Josh Brolin). This Faustian arrogance spells out the movies big theme, and Caines looming comeuppance, in neon block letters, but its 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.)
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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 Caines 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 hes 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 isnt even sure what happens: rape, murder, both? And when were clear about a scenes 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 Cronenbergs 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 arent 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 itd be like to make love to an invisible man, she shrugs: Im sure itd be like old times. But the films climax detonates an arsenal of unintentional laugh lines. Cmon, I heard an explosion, Linda tells Matt, after the labs been blowing up for nearly half an hour. Or, Youre losing blood but he didnt hit any organs! a sentence spoken more for our benefit than for that of the poor fool spitting up on the laboratory floor.
The films one authentic tension revolves around the love triangle. When Linda and Matt are larking about in her bed, were 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, were given a taste of an archetypal male rage, of a piece with our heros 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