(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven very acutely critiqued his own choices when he observed of Hollow Man “it really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that… there might have been twenty directors in Hollywood who could have done that”. It isn’t such a wonder he returned to Europe, and to quality, for his subsequent films. If Memoirs of an Invisible Man failed to follow up on the mental side effects of being seen right through found in HG Wells’ novel and (especially) in James Whale’s film, all Hollow Man does is take that tack, with the consequence that the proceedings degenerate into a banal action slasher, but with a naked Bacon instead of a guy in a hockey mask.
The concept came from Gary Scott Thompson (whose greatest claim to fame is as one of the three writers of the original Fast and the Furious) and Andrew W Marlowe (responsible for ho-hum 90s actioners Air Force One and End of Days, before clawing back some credibility with Castle). Initially at least, the director seemed intent on reining in the gratuitous elements (fat chance), but he was otherwise embracing the special effects cachet that had served him with Starship Troopers and Total Recall. The problem with Hollow Man, though, is that there’s nothing beneath the effects, be that thematically or in terms of narrative complexity. The movie turns a guy invisible and makes him increasingly unstable, before deciding to off his fellow scientists in an underground facility. As Verhoeven said, anyone could have made it, and as damningly – aside from the $50m effects budget – it’s the kind of idea that would comfortably go straight to video (which is exactly what the sequel did).
Hollow Man was nominated for an effects Oscar (Gladiator won, rightly so), but much of the work here hasn’t aged very well. The semi-solid gorilla or Bacon are very obviously effects-y; there’s nothing that suggests a must-see – so to speak – wow element, which is surely, with that amount of money devoted to it, what the studio was aiming for. Bacon was reportedly cast for his ability to switch on the charm before becoming malevolent, but his character is so goddam cocky from the off that this aspect is squandered. Ideally, you should be on his side before he goes completely off the rails, but he’s got #MeToo written all over him. You think he’s an objectionable blowhard even before he starts playing with Kim Dicken’s nipples and by the time he’s resorting to rape you’re under no illusions (yes, this is all very Verhoeven).
Verhoeven’s always been cheerfully unrepentant in his attitude to onscreen sex and violence, so calling him gratuitous is likely to elicit a shrug. Here, though, without anything else to support it, such content really does just feel crude and unnecessary (there’s also wanton creature cruelty, in case you didn’t think animal testing was anything to be alarmed over). I’ve never found Bacon an especially sympathetic lead, but he’s an undeniably good actor, so he’s entirely wasted in this one-note role; he turns invisible and all that’s on his mind is that Elisabeth Shue dumped him. But such slim returns are also true of the parts parcelled to Shue, Dickens and Josh Brolin.
Something more might have been made of the science vs government control of the project, but as played out, it’s all about Bacon’s fears rather than anything tangible, so there’s no tension there. All that said, when it comes to piling on the action during the third act showdown with psycho (and, once he’s set on fire, smoky) Bacon, Verhoeven does a bang-up job with tried-and-tested stalk-and-slash methods. Even as the director’s next-to-weakest Hollywood effort (I’m not a Showgirls apologist), Hollow Man isn’t completely without value, but it does its best to hide it.
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