|Photo: Sony/Columbia Pictures|
Short of the 1930s adaptation of H.G. Well’s novel The Invisible Man, I can’t really think of any other version or variant that is renowned or even good. While Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man takes some interesting approaches, I can’t give it more than mediocre with a few flourishes here and there. Perhaps this week’s The Invisible Man directed by Leigh Whannell can strike a better balance.
As I rewatched Hollow Man, I wondered if having Verhoeven on board was a benefit to the film or a detriment. On one hand, Verhoeven in his prime was the pinnacle of late 1980s/early 1990s action and excess. No one can argue the original Robocop and Total Recall films are nothing short of genre classics. Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers have their own pluses and dedicated fans and even the much maligned Showgirls has had a resurgence in popularity, ironic or not. So the question is not if Verhoeven is a bad or incompetent director but why he chose this particular project?
So if Verhoeven had not taken the reigns on Hollow Man, bringing along previous collaborators like DP Jost Vacano and composer Jerry Goldsmith, what would a take from a Paul W.S. Anderson or a Peter Hyams look like? Would you still have the pretty impressive cast of Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, and Josh Brolin? Would it a $90 million movie with special effects that oscillate between pretty great and Playstation 1 cut scene quality? All this is a roundabout way of saying, if not for Paul Verhoeven, would Hollow Man have been a more entertaining C-grade movie rather than a more disappointing B movie?
Ultimately, I fall on the side that the large budget and impressive pedigree hurts the film more than it helps as this seems to be a movie in conflict with itself. Part mad-scientist tale, part psychological thriller, and part super-human slasher at the end, Hollow Man varies wildly between these aspects. Having Kevin Bacon as the titular invisible man makes sense if his character is the focal point of the movie, which he is to an extent. But a lot of the film is dedicated to Elisabeth Shue and her interactions with Bacon and Brolin as she tries to learn about and hamper Bacon’s insidiously named Sebastian Caine after he loses his marbles. Considering that much of the movie features Bacon in voice only or in a crudely made latex mask, it could prove to be uninteresting to focus solely on him but the juxtaposition between characters and focal points is weird.
Also weird is that Caine’s character does not really have an arc as he starts the film as an egotistical asshole and ends in much the same way, just crazier and willing to kill to cover up his secret experiments that led to his invisibility. Much like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, Caine enters the movie at an eight or so on the intensity scale and only climbs from there, robbing the film of its central message that either Caine’s experiment or the prolonged period of invisibility (and thus accountability) have warped his sense of right and wrong. Shue’s Linda and her boyfriend/colleague Brolin’s Matt are present to start as a check again Caine’s eccentricities and then to be terrorized as he goes off the deep end. As he is, of course, invisible, Caine’s bad behaviors when he leaves the lab in an underground bunker does not carry much weight as no one really knows for sure what he has done.
It is the final 30 minutes or so that really go batshit crazy as Caine has decided to embrace his new reality after many attempts to reverse it have failed. He sets out to kill all the members of his team (some of which honestly just seem to be established earlier to expand the body count in this section, sorry Greg Grunberg), destroy all evidence of the experiments by blowing up the lab, and escaping into the world with a slightly less crude mask on. Here is when the film jettisons any semblance of real life to replace with the invisible gentleman stalking and killing his team one-by-one like a transparent Jason Voorhees. The film takes those slasher tropes and goes bananas with them as Caine is burned, electrocuted, beaten over the head with a crowbar and blown up in a fiery explosion and still manages to come back over and over even though he is supposed to be some normal dude who happens to be invisible.
As mentioned, the special effects here that were (to my recollection at least) pretty impressive when the film was released 20 years ago haven’t aged too well. Some shots in particular hold up well, mostly pertaining to the transformation between visible and invisible as well as scenes where Bacon is invisible but affected by things like water and smoke to make him stand out. But I presume the production blew their budget on these showcase effects so others look really cheesy in contrast. The cinematography is fine but since most of the film takes place in a mostly gray enclosed lab, nothing really stands out like in Verhoeven and Vacano’s previous collaborations. Mostly, for such a high-budget, effects-laden film, it’s passable for the most part.
This again brings me back to my central thesis of what does this film look like with a different director. Does it go all out stupid like the final act or is it more restrained? Is it a badly acted mess of special effects like the DTV is reported to be with no redeeming qualities or something that’s so-bad-it’s-good? I guess the world will never really know.