Hollow Man is intended as The Invisible Man for the computer-generated-imagery generation, and it makes you long for the old Claude Rains film’s tacky, witty pleasures, for pencils floating through space and bandages unraveled to reveal … nothing! This new version is hollow, all right: It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of soullessness that never had any soul to lose. The director, Paul Verhoeven, has been working in a Metallica mode ever since he came to Hollywood from Holland almost fifteen years ago, where he made, among other notable movies, Soldier of Orange, one of the best and most humane war thrillers ever filmed. Verhoeven didn’t simply go Hollywood; he went RoboHollywood – not only with techno-opuses (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) that seem machine-tooled but with his real-people movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, to take the best and the worst, which also seem populated with audio-animatronic banshees. Base and gothic, Verhoeven’s Hollywood movies look like they were hatched in a high-tech bunker, conceivably the same one on display throughout most of Hollow Man. Didn’t it occur to the makers of this movie that turning oneself invisible might also be fun?
That bunker in Hollow Man is a top-secret Defense Department laboratory where Sebastian Caine is the reigning martinet conducting experiments turning animals invisible and back again. Sebastian’s chief assistants, played by Elisabeth Shue and Josh Brolin, are also clandestine lovers – clandestine because Shue had once been Sebastian’s squeeze and Sebastian has a temper. Sebastian is the kind of guy who jokes about how he’s God, making it clear he thinks he really is. He pooh-poohs the Defense Department brass and, bypassing all protocols, volunteers himself as his own first human test subject. “You don’t make history following the rules,” he sneers at his cohorts. (And you don’t make great movies with dialogue like this.)
Kevin Bacon, even when he’s playing good guys, has a feral, skinned-rabbit look that villainizes him (the same is true for James Woods). In Hollow Man, he brings out the venom in Sebastian from the first frame. This is a mistake, although at least it means he’s watchable, which is more than you can say for the other cast members, dullards all. But by starting out Sebastian as a livid, false messiah, Bacon has nowhere to go but sideways: When Sebastian’s invisibility cannot be reversed, he simply becomes a wraithlike version of the same vengeful jerk he always was. Secreted inside the bunker while his assistants take turns monitoring him, he goes stir-crazy and slips away, then slips back in. Most of the time he’s truly invisible, but when smoke or steam or water is put in his way, his form partially reappears, and for a time he is also encased in a plasticlike substance and cowl that give him the look of a deranged Trappist monk.
What is the point of making a movie about an invisible man if you don’t sink into dirty-minded voyeurism? Most of the time Sebastian never even leaves the compound; we’re prisoners with him in a dank dungeon of stainless steel and plate glass, and we’re never encouraged to identify with him. He’s just an id in a snit. If Brian De Palma had made this movie – he already has, in a way, repeatedly – we would be out with Sebastian nightly on a Cook’s tour of purgatory. Verhoeven indulges an occasional low-mindedness, having Sebastian intrude on a buxom neighbor or his rutting cohorts, and he includes a scene where the brainiac appears to be observing a female assistant on the potty. But fantasy-wise, this stuff is pretty slim pickings. Is it because the filmmakers were straining for allegory? (Sebastian’s last name isn’t Caine for nothing.) In the press notes, Verhoeven refers to Plato’s deep musings on invisibility and morality, but his movie doesn’t recall Plato’s Republic. It recalls Republic Pictures: hollow actors in hollow sets hurling hollow dialogue. Even the scenes in which Sebastian is strapped to an operating table and rendered invisible, which should be horrifying, are cheesy. He’s stripped away, layer by layer and organ by organ, but he resembles nothing so much as a giant writhing slab of prosciutto.
Hollow Man may be a dud high and low – no Plato, no porno – but it didn’t have to be that way. In a world in which cybercommunication has, in a sense, rendered many of us invisible travelers, the time was ripe for a remake of a movie about phantom identity. Virtual reality isn’t so virtual anymore, and that’s a great subject for a movie, scary or otherwise. If the makers of Hollow Man had any wit, they might have realized that, in the modern world, the invisible man is just as corporeal as his flesh-and-blood brethren.