If and when we daydream about being miraculously endowed with super-powers, how many of us fantasize about using our new abilities to help our fellow man? The typical Marvel comics superhero receives his power through some terrible accident (usually involving radiation) and regards it as a curse rather than a gift, but ends up using his super-strength or heat vision or stretching ability for the greater good anyway. "With great power comes great responsibility" is Spider-Man’s mantra, but let’s get real here. If you woke up invisible tomorrow morning, would you use your new power to sneak up on muggers in dark alleys, or to watch your sexy neighbor take a shower?
Paul Verhoeven’s unsettling new thriller Hollow Man starts with a typical comic book premise. Scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) and his team are at work on a top secret government project. They have been able to render primates invisible and Sebastian has just hit upon the key to making them visible again. Without waiting for approval from the Pentagon, Sebastian rushes into human testing, with himself as the subject. He disappears successfully, but the re-visibility formula that worked for gorillas proves ineffective at bringing Sebastian back into view. He now must face the possibility of life as an invisible man.
In a Marvel comic, Sebastian would whine about his plight, then set about fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. But Verhoeven gives us a protagonist who is already a little corrupt, then doses him with absolute power and watches as it corrupts him absolutely. When we meet Sebastian Caine, he’s a bit arrogant, slightly jealous that his co-worker and ex-girlfriend Linda (Elisabeth Shue) is dating someone new, and even something of a voyeur. His apartment has a Rear Window view of an attractive woman’s bedroom across the street, and in between bouts of fiddling with DNA structures on his computer, Sebastian likes to peer between the blinds and try to get a glimpse of her undressing. Once he becomes invisible, his inhibitions disappear as well, and his inner Slim Shady is free to run wild. Sebastian flees the underground lab where Linda and the rest of the team (including Sebastian’s rival and Linda’s new lover Matt Kensington, played by Josh Brolin) are working on the reversal serum, and pays an unseen visit to his attractive neighbor. He peers in Linda’s window late one night and learns that she is sleeping with his adversary. And when Sebastian’s Pentagon supervisor learns of his unauthorized self-testing and threatens to shut down the project, the hollow man is pushed beyond the point of no return.
For its first hour or so, Hollow Man is a genuinely creepy nail-biter. It’s a given that the special effects are impressive. (Though ironic, in a way – what special effect could be easier to convey than invisibility?) When an angry gorilla gradually re-materializes from the inside out – first we see its blood vessels appear out of nowhere, then the skeleton, muscles, skin and fur gradually emerge from the ether – the visual is eye-popping enough that we don’t mind sitting through it again in reverse when Sebastian undergoes the treatment. The filmmakers also come up with inventive ways of overcoming the major stumbling block inherent in making your star invisible, which is that (all together now) you can’t see him. Heat-vision goggles, latex masks, water, steam and blood all come into play to keep Bacon in the picture. Besides the technical wizardry, the picture is alive with jittery "is-he-there-or-is-he-not" tension, and milks the voyeuristic thrills of its premise for all they’re worth. Master of sleaze Verhoeven (the visionary behind Basic Instinct and Showgirls) finds his ideal leading man in Kevin Bacon, whose affinity for seedy characters apparently knows no bounds, and for a while it’s all good, icky fun.
Too bad the final third of the movie is so dreadful. Watching Hollow Man devolve into Alien with an invisible bad guy, enjoyment of the picture vanishes faster than Sebastian Caine’s pet chimp. It’s astounding how quickly the action becomes utterly routine and predictable, with Sebastian knocking off the cast in ascending order of billing, fireballs racing up elevator shafts, and the requisite seventeen false endings. Elisabeth Shue’s giggly sorority girl performance doesn’t aid the suspense much (she and the rest of the research team all appear to be graduates of the GQ Institute of Molecular Biology), and the always shaky science of the invisibility project grows ever more ludicrous. Not only do Verhoeven and screenwriters Gary Scott Thompson and Andrew W. Marlowe take the path of least resistance, but their movie reeks of last minute re-editing. One development about midway through Hollow Man is left hanging, never to be returned to or mentioned again. It feels like a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to push into the darkest corners the material has to offer. By the end, the movie has much in common with its protagonist: you can see right through it, and there’s nothing there.