Paul Verhoeven's Hollywood directing career over the past decade-and-a-half has had very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde pattern to it. On the one hand, his 1987 North American debut "Robocop" was a surprisingly potent mix of action, pathos, and satire that put a Frankenstein spin on the story of a cyborg cop that begins remembering pieces of his previous life. And though his "Total Recall" and the more recent "Starship Troopers" were never able to replicate the unique blend of action and emotion of "Robocop", they were still memorable films, the first for its wit and ingenuity, and the latter for its send-up of jingoistic World War II films. However, Verhoeven's oeuvre is also replete with a couple of dubious offerings such as "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls", which took mainstream sexploitation films to an all new low. Now, in the new millennium, Verhoeven is back in the director's chair with another sci-fi effort, "Hollow Man", a contemporary take on H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man". Unfortunately, despite some truly outstanding special effects, "Hollow Man" will probably be remembered as one of Verhoeven's less memorable films, as it is essentially a 'dead teenager movie' (like "Friday the 13th"), only with a bigger budget.
Kevin Bacon ("Stir of Echoes") stars as the aptly named Sebastian Caine, a brilliant but egomaniacal scientist who is working on a top-secret military project aimed at making things invisible. At the beginning of the film, Caine has already figured out how to make things disappear-- the laboratory is filled with animals that have been made invisible, made possible by 'phase shifting them out of quantum synch'. The problem is that he can't make them reappear, and the longer the test animals stay invisible, the more erratic and dangerous their behavior becomes.
However, when a breakthrough in the early part of the film allows him to bring back a gorilla from the realm of the unseen, Caine decides to push forward for human testing-- on himself. Though the experiment is meant to render him invisible for only three days, something goes wrong, and Caine finds himself permanently sight-unseen. As his fellow scientists, including ex-lover Linda Foster (Elisabeth Shue of "Palmetto") and rival Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin of "The Mod Squad"), attempt to figure a way to reverse the process, Caine slowly finds himself increasingly subject to the paranoid thoughts and deviant behavior that afflicted the previous test subjects.
There is no doubt about it that the special effects that went into rendering Kevin Bacon invisible would be the only reason to see "Hollow Man". The first mind-blowing sequence comes early in the film, when Caine injects a 'reversion agent' into an invisible gorilla, which gradually makes it visible layer by layer, starting with the vascular system and ending with the skin. As the film progresses, the effects become more daring and dynamic. For example, not content to have Caine running around as a disembodied voice throughout the entire film, painstaking effort (including Bacon being covered head-to-toe in blue make-up) was put into showing how Caine's invisible body interacts with the environment. As the film winds its way towards the finale, a number of interesting methods are used to make Caine visible, including the use of smoke, steam, blood, a fire sprinkler system, and even a flame-thrower.
Unfortunately, other than the special effects, there's little else going on upstairs in "Hollow Man". For all intents and purposes, this is just a dressed-up slasher flick with your requisite assortment of victims-- the nerd (Joey Slotnick, who played Steve Wozniak in "Pirates of Silicon Valley"), the token sassy black female (Mary Jo Randle), and the lone heroine smart enough to defeat the villain (Shue). In addition, the cinematic mainstays of the slasher film, such as the 'killer's P.O.V shot' and the 'is it or isn't it?' dream sequences, are also used in abundance here. And given his penchant for gratuitous nudity and graphic violence, it is not surprising that Verhoeven's camera lingers as Caine's victims are dispatched in all sorts of gruesome ways. Finally, in these types of films, the audience usually ends up rooting for the killer, because he is the only interesting character on the screen. The same thing happens in "Hollow Man", as the arrogant and paranoid Caine character is far more developed than the bland so-called protagonists, played by Shue and Brolin.
The 'slasher movie' trappings are further exacerbated by some of the most howlingly-bad dialogue I've heard in a long time, which is surprising considering that the scribe was Andrew Marlowe, who wrote a pretty competent "Die Hard" variant named "Air Force One". You would swear that your were watching some Lorenzo Lamas-starring-direct-to-video stinker with all the hackneyed lines and pointless posturing going on. The banal conversations become even more unbearable in the hands of the incompetent group of actors gathered for the occasion, with the worst offender being Academy Award-nominated Shue (for "Leaving Las Vegas")-- I still can't believe she can get acting gigs given her poor performances in "The Saint" and "Palmetto".
Alas, other than the special effects, there is little point in recommending "Hollow Man", unless bad dialogue and slasher movies are your two favorite things in the world. Verhoeven showed so much promise as an action-film director back in 1987, when his classic "Robocop" was unleashed. Unfortunately, thirteen years later, it seems that the Dutch director is far past his prime.