Screenplay : Andrew W. Marlowe (story by Gary Scott Thompson and Andrew W. Marlowe)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Elisabeth Shue (Linda Foster), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Caine), Josh Brolin (Matt Kensington), Kim Dickens (Sarah), Greg Grunberg (Carter Abby), Mary Jo Randle (Janice), Joey Slotnick (Frank)
Ever since coming to the United States in the mid-1980s, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has worked unabashedly in the mainstream, working in broad, popular genres like science fiction ("RoboCop," "Total Recall," "Starship Troopers") and the psychological thriller ("Basic Instinct").
If you can ignore his 1995 disaster "Showgirls," which would be the scarlet letter of his career if it didn't have so much camp enjoyment, Verhoeven has crafted a sly body of work that seems, on the immediate surface, to be pure Hollywood pulp. Yet, like Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom Verhoeven shares many traits, he embraces and subverts the mainstream at the same time. All of his films have fascinating subversive elements, some of which are noticeable during the first viewing, some of which emerge only with repeat viewings. Like Hitchcock, Verhoeven is a master of entertaining an audience while simultaneously calling into question basic assumptions that are often taken for granted in American life.
However, Verhoeven's most recent film, "Hollow Man," is mostly lacking in the satirical subtexts that have characterized most of his work. Possibly this is because the movie's theme of the corrupting nature of scientific power is at least as old as Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein." And, while Verhoeven seems to be executing a subversive exploration of the fulfilled desire to engage in questionable behavior under the cloak of invisibility, the movie gets away from him in the final scenes and becomes a routine action/horror hybrid that is beneath his capabilities.
In "Hollow Man," the Dr. Frankenstein is Dr. Sebastian Craine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant (and arrogant) scientist who has developed a formula for invisibility (in the movie's pseudo-scientific terms, it causing objects to "phase shift out of quantum sync with the visible universe"). After successfully applying the formula to a variety of animals, Sebastian decides to use himself as the first human guinea pig. Of course, this goes against all sorts of medical ethics, including the fact that he lies about his findings and intentions to the top brass at the Pentagon who fund his research.
It is hard to discuss any aspect of "Hollow Man" without first giving kudos to the special effects team that made the Sebastian's invisibility so utterly plausible. From the scenes of Sebastian becoming invisible, in which each layer of his body disappears, revealing the next layer until he is a slowly fading skeleton, to the scenes in which some vague outline of his body is made visible by water or steam, there is never a questionable moment in the film. Although Sebastian is invisible during three-fourths of the film, his presence can never be ignored.
Sebastian's research team includes his ex-lover, Linda Foster (Elisabeth Shue), who is now having a secret affair with another researcher, Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin). The love triangle aspect of the story is by far the weakest link, which is often the case in Verhoeven's films. Verhoeven is an excellent visual stylist with a fine sense of pacing and a wicked sensibility, but his work with actors is often quite flat unless it is utterly cartoonish (I'm thinking here about the effective work of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct," which was successful primarily because it was a wink-wink riff on hypersexual femme fatales that bore no relation to reality).
Sebastian's research takes place in a highly secretive underground laboratory. The early scenes in Andrew W. Marlowe's ("End of Days") script give us all the information we need about the laboratory and the research, which sets up the extended climax when Sebastian locks the remaining members of his research team in the maze-like lab and begins to hunt them down one-by-one. It is something of a let-down that the film devolves into what is essentially a slasher flick, complete with several is-the-killer-dead-or-isn't-he moments. But, at the same time, this is what the story has been promising us from the get-go, so it would have been almost a let-down had it not followed through.
The idea is planted early in the narrative that the invisibility formula may have negative emotional and psychological effects on whoever uses it. Considering Sebastian's inherently mean and selfish disposition, it is no surprise that he uses his newfound invisibility for increasingly vicious purposes. What starts off as mere voyeurism and cruel pranks soon turns into sexual assault and then homicide. Sebastian becomes a slave to his own scientific discovery, murdering anyone who might spoil his plans. What those plans are, exactly, is never made clear. But, we understand that, by the end of the film, Sebastian is simply deranged with his own egotism, and the future probably matters very little to him.
With the basic set-up, Verhoeven is free to exercise what has become one of his chief cinematic trademarks: sadism. This is probably the trait that Verhoeven shares most strongly with Hitchcock. Both directors are almost frighteningly adept at luring the audience into culpability with the misguided (sometimes sadistic) impulses of their (anti)heroes. While some critics decry this as detestable behavior, I see it as simply an artistic means of pointing out the dark side of us all. That we could feel tense wondering if Rusk, the serial killer in Hitchcock's "Frenzy" (1972), will get away with his evil deeds or feel exhilarated watching through Sebastian's eyes as he creeps unseen into a woman's house is a strong sign of just how appealing evil can be.
If there is a subversive element of "Hollow Man," it is this: While the narrative proper ends in perfectly moral fashion with Sebastian getting his comeuppance (several times, in fact), there is still the lingering enjoyment of having been able to see through his eyes while he used his invisibility to malicious ends. While it is not nearly as effective as the future-punk social satire of "RoboCop" (1987) or the fascist jokeiness of "Starship Troopers" (1997), the subtext of "Hollow Man" still brings a few questions to mind.
After all, who has never wondered what it would be like to be invisible and what could be done with such a power? It is a tempting scenario, and as Sebastian puts it, "It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning." In other words, invisibility becomes a means of not having to face yourself and your actions anymore.
In "Hollow Man," invisibility becomes a means through which Sebastian can separate himself from moral responsibility because, in a sense, he no longer exists; only his actions have a physical reality than can be seen. The fact that Sebastian was something of a fiend to begin with is of little comfort because, while watching his actions, it is hard to deny that there would be a little voice inside us all that would try to convince us to do the exact same thing.
It is unfortunate that Verhoeven lets the film get out of control in the final 20 minutes. He stages an elaborate and admittedly heart-pounding action climax, but it dilutes the message of the early sequences that featured Sebastian engaging in behavior with which a large percentage of the audience could possible identify. In the end, Sebastian becomes too simplistically evil, and the moral ambiguity that could have made this a truly disturbing exploration of human potential both good and bad is almost lost entirely.
©2000 James Kendrick