As a character, the Invisible Man never really had much going for him. I’m mean, sure, you’re invisible. Then what? I know we’ve all had a masturbatory fantasy or two about then what, but what about after that? Well, Christ on a crutch, if you ever get to that point, don’t you dare do as Kevin Bacon did.
H.G. Welles Invisible Man is another in a long line of classic SF novel Universal Pictures dumbed down during their horror heyday, back in the 1940s. Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man obviously started dumb, needing no help from its studio’s dumbing down department. It’s pretty obvious that, as with so many other pictures these days, Hollow Man is an excuse to show off some, admittedly damn cool, invisible man effects…and that’s about all. But the question remains: What the hell do you do with your invisible man?
Back up with me a bit. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) is a brilliant scientist. (Yes, we’re supposed to except Kevin Bacon as a brilliant scientist. May I continue?) When he’s not trying to catch a glimpse of his hot lady neighbor, Sebastian holds court in his secret, underground, government-funded lab. There, Sebastian’s toiling away at his secret underground government-funded invisibility project, and as the movie opens, Sebastian finally crosses the last big hurtle: how to make an invisible subject visible again. With this, he shall rule the world and declare his reign the Empire of Invisible Man the–
Wait, wait. No. Getting ahead of ourselves again. With this, he and the rest of his team go out and celebrate. W find that Sebastian and team member Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue) have a little history together. A history Sebastian dearly wishes to repeat. But the lovely Elizabeth has other ideas. Unbeknownst to Sebastian, she’s shagging with team member Matt (Josh Brolin). All of this soap opera will factor into the plot, eventually. Hell, you’ll even be able to figure out how. The movie will be kind enough to telegraph this (and many other plot developments) right into your brain. Oh the miraculous powers of Movie Science!
So the Intrepid Scientists make a breakthrough. Do they immediately rush to the military men in charge, trumpeting their success to the four winds, thus squeezing God-only-knows how much more money out of the Military-Industrial Complex? Of course not. Sebastian has other plans: he wants to be the world’s first invisible man. Which is great and all. Who wouldn’t? But shouldn’t there be, say…rigorous psychological screening processes involved in choosing Project Invisible’s first human text subject?
Ah, but if there were, there would be no story here. So Sebastian turns invisible. Everything’s fine, at first. Even a little fun for him, and for the audience (who are, after all, only here for this bit of the picture). But when the reversion procedure nearly kills him, Sebastian is forced to stay invisible for days…and weeks…and he…
Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. The only place it can go, really. H.G. Wells made “invisibility drives people insane,” the premiere SF law that it is today. If they aren’t insane to begin with, being see-through sure takes care of that, and while Sebastian Caine may be many things, “stable” is certainly not one of them.
That’s the whole point of the movie: its the old Ring of Gyges again. Power in the wrong hands can be a really bad thing…and who among us fragile, fallible human beings has the right pair of hands for a power such as this? The film makes sure we know Sebastian right off for the flamboyant, cocky, don’t-you-just-want-to-punch-him bastard he is. Being invisible only reinforces these tendencies of personality. And while it might’ve been nice to see a bit of simple human decency from our Mr. Caine, at least he’s a consistent bastard all the way through. Had Sebastian started out as aw-shucks kinda guy and then gone psycho I would’ve been particularly pissed. Absolute power doesn’t corrupt unless those worms Pink Floyd talked about have already eaten your soul away…and we all know they’ve taken Sebastian’s. After all, look at the damn title: it’s right there, smacking us upside the face. He’s a hollow man, see. There’s nothing in him but bastard.
No, the fact that invisibility turns Sebastian into a raving loony is fine and dandy. What I object to is what happens after he turns into a raving loony. So you have an invisible man, right? What do you do with him? Over the years I have never seen a more contrived answer than the one this movie presents.
I’m going to give most of the ending away, but fuck it. So Sebastian eventually comes to terms with himself as the Invisible Man through the healing power of megalomania. To this end, he lives out what Paul Verhoeven believes to be the logical conclusion of all those fantasies I mentioned a few paragraphs back, doing unsavory (off-screen) things to his neighbor (the hot babe). Sebastian then spies Linda and Matt making the Beast With Two Backs. This drives Sebastian through the dead end of Sexual Homicide Avenue, right into that broad thoroughfare of Revenge Killing Street. Figuring the only way to be an Invisible Man in a visible world is to kill everyone who knows his dirty little secret, Sebastian murders the Army CO in charge of Project Invisible, and traps his research team in the project’s underground lair.
So. We’ve got five people trapped in a secluded area, stalked by a superpowered mad man who proceeds to knock them off one by one in various unsavory ways. During this sequence, our group of supposedly-intelligent scientists separates five times, tries various means to kill their superpower assailant, and generally regress to the level of blithering idiots. In other words, for the last thirty minutes, Hollow Man morphs into the most expensive slasher movie in history.
Which is not to say Hollow Man it’s all bad. In fact, up until the aforementioned last thirty minutes, I was rather enjoying myself. It’s that enjoyment which really makes the aforementioned last thirty minutes sting. For starters, Kevin Bacon is the consummate cocky bastard. Is charismatic cocky bastard too strong a term? If so, who cares? Fact is: I almost got to like Sebastian Caine. He seemed like an okay guy, as cocky bastard Scientists go, and his turn toward Evil Town feels like the last desperate act of a screenwriter who panicked and took the off-ramp after realizing he might barrel straight into Interesting Charactersville.
For example, Elizabeth Shue is certainly easy on the eyes, but her character isn’t what I’d call deep…just look at her. Actually, that’s no excuse. But here’s one: her character (along with the rest of Sebastian’s research team) is grossly underwritten. Her past with Sebastard is only barely sketched out, and I’m wondering what she could’ve ever seen in the guy. How, in fact, does anyone put up with his unrepentantly dickish behavior? If the characters weren’t so one note, I might be able to answer some of these questions. But it writers Andrew Marlowe and Gary Scott Thompson sent their creative energy. Bet you didn’t know they had any, but…well, it’s a lot like Kevin Bacon…you can’t see it, but it’s there. Ba-dum-tish.
Not surprisingly, the best thing about this movie is its visuals, and sue me to the poor house but I’ve always enjoyed the work of Paul Verhoven. I worship Robocop, Total Recall is my idea of a good time, and hell, even Showgirls has boobies. With all that, I expected a bit more from Paul than few CGI shots of Kevin Bacon’s skin disappearing.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: these are the best Invisible Man effects to date. They’re great stuff. But they can’t carry the picture. And Tall Paul can’t really turn this into the Slasher move he so desperately wants it to be. It just lacks a certain something…what’s that called? Oh, righ. It’s called originality. Man, where is my head, eh? Yes, that originality thing. It’s almost as annoying as that plot thing, in that people keep demanding it in their movies. If we’d just shut up about it, Hollywood could keep turning out its cookie-cutter retreads in peace.
Hollow Man is this close to being good. Hell, as it stands, the movie’s almost decent. Great special effects and a decent cast. But instead of trying something new, Hollow Man circles the same drain most of the SF genre seems rearing to dive down. Future directors, take heed: once you have your invisible man, do whatever you want with him…just don’t make him chase Final Girl’s down. Spoiler Alert: he’ll loose. Every time.