Invisible (hu)Man(ity) 

Hollow Man (R)
Columbia Pictures

Last week in the Brilliant Careers section of online magazine Salon.com, critic Andrew O'Hehir tried valiantly to defend the peculiar genius of filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, RoboCop, Total Recall). But O'Hehir's arguments aside -- Verhoeven unashamedly embraces the erotic thriller, the sci-fi spectacular, and sometimes makes pure trash, but "what intoxicating, satisfying, downright weird trash!" -- Verhoeven's latest thriller, Hollow Man, is an empty, excruciating mess.

Kevin Bacon stars as Dr. Sebastian Crane (what a wonderfully grandiose horror flick name!), the egomaniacal leader of a top-secret, government-funded lab project which hopes to make temporary invisibility a possibility for covert military operations in the very near future. Crane and his crew have successfully disappeared and brought back to complete visibility Isabelle, a gorilla, but are stymied in their efforts to move to the human phase of the experiment. When top Pentagon officials refuse to give them the go-ahead, Crane arrogantly insists to his co-workers that they will proceed secretly and that he will become the first invisible human.

It is unclear why his crew have any loyalty to Crane; he mistreats them all mercilessly. Granted, when they are not madly experimenting, they all strut through the halls of their immense underground lab hurling insults at each other, but Crane is king of the putdown, skewering them regularly to enhance his own power.

Eventually, assisted by his former lover Linda (Elisabeth Shue); her beefy current lover, Matt (Josh Brolin); a terse lab veterinarian, Sarah (Kim Dickens); and a gaggle of glib lab assistants, Crane strips down and straps himself to the table to be injected with a smoking, irradiated blue liquid that sets off the process (a smoking, red irradiated liquid reverses the process), and in one of the film's compelling special effects sequences, he begins to dissipate -- first his epidermis disappears, then his musculature, then his organs -- until his bare skeleton is left and, finally, poof! he is invisible. (It's like peeling back the transparent pages of the old World Book encyclopedia which displayed the human anatomy in a similar fashion.)

But special effects aside, no other aspect of Hollow Man is entertaining or enlightening. When efforts to bring Crane back to visibility fail, instead of despairing, he becomes more of a swaggering ass, growing more testy and more sadistic the longer he remains invisible. Ostensibly getting off on the implications of not being seen -- the things you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror -- Crane embarks on a journey of sexual harrassment and abuse, first unbuttoning and feeling up Sarah while she sleeps in the lab, then entering a neighbor's apartment and gleefully pursuing her. It is unclear whether he rapes her, kills her or merely knocks her around a little bit -- Verhoeven likes it ambiguous, it seems -- but eventually Crane's murderous impulses become clearer and we are treated to every imaginable kind of gory bloodletting.

It's possible that Hollow Man could be interesting if we were allowed any insight into Crane's obviously immense sexual insecurities, but all we are allowed to know is that he couldn't sustain a relationship with Linda and thus, he becomes unglued when he witnesses her rolling around in bed with Matt. The implication is that if we were not visible, we might all launch into full-blown homicidal behavior given the least cause, a grossly misleading and simplistic notion. According to O'Hehir, Verhoeven has made lofty statements in the past indicating his belief that, following the Second World War, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge our dark capabilities, the capacity for evil that lies in all of us -- a wise and honorable philosophy. But to use the guise of invisibility the way Crane does defies logic and imagination -- his is the petty psyche of a Peeping Tom that unjustly reinforces the worst male stereotypes, not the complex psyche of a fascist gone bad.

Hollow Man ends in a seemingly interminable chase scene with Linda and Matt in which she yells inane lines like "You're losing a lot of blood but it didn't hit any organs!" while closing a gaping wound in his stomach with duct tape. They are trapped in a deep freeze, they do battle with flame throwers and fire extinguishers, they climb frantically up an exploding elevator shaft, all the while pursued by the dogged Crane -- beaten, burned and electrocuted but unvanquished.

Like the rest of the film, this spectacle rings empty, void, vacant, meaningless, superficial, delusive, ineffectual, unsatisfying -- in a word, hollow.


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