Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2000)

13. Hollow Man

When “Hollow Man” hit theaters in 2000, it would become Paul Verhoeven's biggest hit since “Basic Instinct.” It would gross over 100 million at the global box office, a big step up from “Showgirls” flopping and “Starship Troopers” just breaking even. I even have a personal anecdote about the film. Back in high school, a female friend of mine said the film gave her a reoccurring fear of Kevin Bacon. Yet Verhoeven himself would express disappointment with the film. He complained that anyone could've made this movie, that it didn't reflect his personal idiosyncrasies enough. That bitter reaction would cause Verhoeven to leave Hollywood. Seventeen years later, how does “Hollow Man” hold up?

Sebastian Caine is a scientist who has successfully designed a serum that can turn living matter invisible. After a late night bolt of inspiration strikes, he figures out how to make the invisible visible again. He's working on the project in a secret facility with a motley crew of scientists, including his ex-girlfriend, Linda. Caine refuses to report their success to their military backers, hoping to test the serum on a human subject. He allows himself to be injected. Once invisible, Caine realizes humans can't be restored to flesh-and-blood so easily. The longer Caine stays unseen, the more his morality and sanity begins to slip. Soon, Caine is committing ghastly acts. When his research partners suggests shutting down the project, Caine locks up the facility and starts to pick them off, one by one.

The defenses I've read of “Basic Instinct” frame it as critical of its male lead's blustering macho bullshit. “Hollow Man” takes the same point even further. Sebastian Caine is a frat boy scientist. He drives around in a sports car while blaring terrible hard rock. His default mood is cocky self-assurance. He manipulates and emotionally blackmails everyone around him. The only person he can't bully is Linda. That she rejected him in favor of another man deeply infuriates him. Once invisible, his macho ego is given full reign to reek as much havoc as it wants. In H. G. Wells' “The Invisible Man,” the unseen madman hopes to rule the world. In “Hollow Man,” Caine uses his ability to rape and settle petty grudges. That's the most elaborate scheme his swollen, dickhead mind can think of.

The film teases with the idea that the invisibility serum is what causes its subjects to go crazy. The gorilla they test it on is more aggressive before rendered visible again. Verhoeven himself seems to reject this. The film's cynical and ugly – but not entirely unreasonable – assumption is that any man, if granted invisibility, would become an amoral monster. He emphasizes this point by often shooting scenes from Caine's perspective. Most everyone has probably fantasized about being invisible, a scenario these sequences entertain. Yet Verhoeven follows this fantasy to its most horrific conclusion. Caine rapes his shapely next door neighbor, who he used to spy on. The sequence is tasteless and shocking. But the rug is successfully pulled out from under the viewers' feet. “The Invisible Man doesn't seem so fun now, does he?” Verhoeven says with a shit-eating grin.

Verhoeven's insistence that “Hollow Man” doesn't reflect his personality isn't baseless. The film, at times, feels like a genre exercise that could've been directed by anyone. Yet it seems unlikely that anyone else would take the subject matter as far as Verhoeven does. The director's peculiar obsession is evident in other ways. Sebastian Caine has a serious God complex. It's set up early on, when another scientist on the project jokes about being God. Caine corrects him, claiming he's a deity. Once granted invisibility, Caine's complex goes into overdrive, believing he's above societal morality. This is a natural evolution of the Christ obsession the director has displayed previously. If Verhoeven believes Christianity is a religion rooted in violence, casting a God-like figure as a murderous maniac is a natural extension. God's violent too.

When “Hollow Man” came out, most of the attention it received was directed at its elaborate special effects. This continues a proud tradition, as the Universal “Invisible Man” films push effects as far as they could in their day. Instead of simply shooting scenes without Kevin Bacon, “Hollow Man” goes to the effort of digitally removing him from every scene. When you see diodes, blankets, or molding cream stuck to his unseen skin, it's not simple trickery. Probably the most impressive sequence involves Bacon shifting from visible to invisible and back again. He doesn't just fade out. We see everything bone, nerve, vein, muscle, and organ slowly reappear or vanish. The CGI doesn't look as cutting edge as it once did but the sheer attention to detail is still insanely impressive. The effects crew received an Oscar nomination for their troubles.

Like most Invisible Man stories, “Hollow Man” doesn't explore the nitty gritty details of becoming unseen. Caine's eyelids are invisible, yet his sleeping habits are only marginally affected by this. We don't see partially digested food floating inside him. Or sweat collecting on his skin. Or dirt under his fingernails. However, “Hollow Man” does have fun dousing its invisible man in various fluids. A stand-out scene has Caine diving into a pool, revealing himself as a watery silhouette. Throughout the film, the Hollow Man is draped in steam, splashed with blood, or set ablaze. That's when the movie isn't utilizing infrared cameras to make the unseen seen. It's elaborate visual showmanship but I appreciate that.

“Hollow Man's” script is a bit unbalanced. Placing that ghastly rape scene so early in the film makes Caine's eventual transformation into a raving murderer less shocking. By that point, he's already a monster. Yet you can tell the murder-filled last act is what screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe, previously of “Air Force One” and “End of Days,” really wanted to write. In that second half, “Hollow Man” becomes an expensive slasher film. Victims are garroted and strangled by invisible hands. Necks are snapped. An especially grisly kill involves impalement with a crowbar. The film resembles the slasher genres in other ways. Shue's Linda begins to act like a final girl of sorts. Caine proves difficult to kill, taking more damage than the human body should physically be able too. No mater how much he's electrocuted or beaten, he always returns for one more scare.

Some reviewers have complained about “Hollow Man” degrading into such a low genre so suddenly. Yet I can appreciate a good slasher flick, even if it stars Kevin Bacon's musculature system. The film doesn't really loose me until its climax. Linda and her current boyfriend are positioned in a collapsing elevator shaft. They end up dangling on a ladder, below a careening elevator box and above a poorly CGI'd ball of fire. The situation becomes more and more preposterous, leading up to the moment when Caine falls into the fireball. At that point, the movie becomes too overheated, too silly, for my taste.

There's another reason “Hollow Man” is worth checking out. This is Kevin Bacon at his hammiest. From a screenwriting perspective, Sebastian Caine begins the film as an insufferable dick bag. By the end, he's a murdering, raping monster who kills dogs and gropes sleeping women. Despite this, Bacon keeps the character charismatic, if not likable, throughout. He has a way with dialogue that's amusing. His cocksure smile is charming, in a greasy way. Caine is absolutely despicable but at least you understand why he's doing these things. Bacon's strength for approaching unlikable characters in a complex, sympathetic manner made him the ideal pick for the part.

Bacon ultimately owns the film but other actors emerge as interesting. Elisabeth Shue plays Linda McKay as a woman immune to Caine's sleazeball ways. She can, ironically, see right through his macho bullshit, making her a perfect foil to the villain. Shue is solid in the part, sexy and strong when she needs to be. Josh Brolin plays her new lover, making him a target of Caine's rage. Brolin is nowhere near as compelling as Bacon, his character being rather weakly written. Of Caine's victims, the only one that emerges as memorable is Kim Dickens' Sarah, a feisty veterinarian who puts her animals' well fare above people.

After his excellent “Total Recall” and “Basic Instincts” scores, Jerry Goldsmith returns to provide another overachieving score to a sleazy Paul Verhoeven movie. His “Hollow Man” score begins with a throbbing, metallic baseline, as if to emphasizes the coldness of the lead character. He builds upon that with low woodwind and piano, creating a melodic if subtly off-putting atmosphere. But Goldsmith knew when to lay on the bombast too. He adds sweeping strings and shrieking cords from time to time as well. It's a mysterious score that you'd expect more from a classy, early nineties political thriller than a trumped-up sci-fi slasher.

“Hollow Man” would , naturally, be poorly received by critics. Most dismissed it as badly written, if not morally repugnant, and too focused on its special effects. (Though its box office popularity led to a direct-to-DVD sequel starring Christian Slater, which sounds about right.) Oddly, fans generally agree that “Hollow Man” is one of Paul Verhoeven's weakest films. Despite having some fairly clear flaws, I still have some fondness for “Hollow Man.” It's an expensive, mainstream horror picture full of graphic content that would certainly not get made today. I'm not sure how it got made in 2000. Despite Verhoeven dismissing it himself, the film is still full of his quirks and trademarks. Ultimately, it's a minor work but one I can enjoy. [Grade: B]

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