One of the indelible images from the Saturday TV horror matinees of my youth comes from James Whale’s original 1933 version of The Invisible Man: The title character, his head swathed in bandages, proceeds to unwrap himself with a kind of circular-spiral gusto, revealing the empty space beneath. That sad and frightful burn-victim getup may have been a disguise, a way of passing in the material world, but it also suggested, with a macabre poeticism, the invisible man’s inner damage. The movie was about one seriously haunted fellow — a guy with a hole in his soul.
In Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven’s tautly reductive, F/X-charged mad-scientist thriller, Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant and cocky U.S. military researcher, submits himself, in a burst of ”godlike” bravado, to a top secret forbidden experiment, becoming the first human being to turn invisible. He then discovers, to his dismay, that turning back isn’t quite so easy. To keep tabs on him, Sebastian’s fellow researchers, toiling away in a vast underground laboratory somewhere in the bowels of Washington, D.C., pour fast-drying latex over his head, cutting out big, melancholy circles for eyes, plus a terse slit of a mouth. As an image of a man whose identity has slipped away right along with his ability to be seen, that rubbery pink mask, with its empty-socket peepholes, is eerie and poignant — a worthy age-of-synthetics stand-in for those 1930s bandages.
In this case, however, it would be a bit of a stretch to describe Sebastian himself as haunted. Extremely ticked off is more like it. His ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue), you see, has involved herself with a new hunk (Josh Brolin), and the two are both members of the research team. Under normal circumstances, their relationship might not be the sort of thing to keep a self-centered overachiever like Sebastian awake at night. But the paradox of invisibility alters the picture. Trapped in his unseen state, Sebastian feels at once impotent and obscenely powerful — a corporeal ghost who can do anything he dreams of. Overnight, his feelings of jealousy and betrayal transform him from a typically arrogant lab-coat hotshot, played by Kevin Bacon with winning ego-bladed zest, into a vengeful homicidal sociopath. He’s invisible and he’s angry.
Sebastian even takes advantage of his situation to make a brief detour into sex-criminal kink. Creeping around the lab, he unbuttons the blouse of a dozing researcher (surprise! — she’s upset), and then, escaping to the outside world, he sneaks into the apartment of his lingerie-clad, across-the-courtyard neighbor. (But how, exactly, does he manage to pocket his house keys?) She has the willowy, statuesque bod of a Victoria’s Secret model, and he indulges in a bit of shower-steam voyeurism, then goes even further than that. And this, God help us, is Paul Verhoeven working without Joe Eszterhas.
The transformation scenes, featuring Sebastian as well as the lab’s prize gorilla, are shivery and spectacular, with sinews, veins, muscles, organs, and skeleton appearing and disappearing layer by layer, like an anatomy-textbook illustration come to queasy, wriggling life. Still, when the movie isn’t wowing us with its biomedical visual dazzle, it raises the question: Who’s the real hollow man here? Is it Sebastian, who becomes a flatly unsympathetic stick-figure psychopath, a Jason Voorhees you can’t see? Or is it Verhoeven, who did once make a haunting sci-fi movie about half a man — the scaldingly nihilistic future-shock satire RoboCop — but who seems to have reduced filmmaking to a matter of sheer molten energy and special effects, with any suggestive levels of imagination blocked out?
On its own blatant, deliver-the-goods terms, Hollow Man is an eminently watchable B-movie nightmare. The contours of Sebastian’s flesh become briefly visible in a number of startling ways, as he dives into a swimming pool, walks through a room filled with gas, and, at one point, gets drenched in blood; the researchers can see him as well when they put on their infrared glasses. Still, having Sebastian face off against this whole damn science team drags the movie down, and Verhoeven sets up and then fails to deliver lavish satirical ways of having fun with invisibility. Why couldn’t he have sent Sebastian off to make mischief in, say, a shopping mall, or a chic restaurant, or a congressional caucus? Even the peep-show stuff would have worked better if Verhoeven, instead of lapsing into sub-De Palma slasher tics, had made a sincerely titillating, human-scale fantasy about giving yourself up to the voyeur within. Instead, he turns Sebastian into a skin-deep pervert, a monster who all but disappears as a character. B-