ollow Man, the latest offering from Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall), showcases the director’s usual mix of violence, eye-popping visual effects, and gore, resulting in a cinematic exploration of the wonders and horrors (mainly horrors) of invisibility. If you recall the brutal slaying of the corporate executive by the ED-209 in Robocop (even after it was ordered to be trimmed by the MPAA due to its excessive violence) or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s use of a corpse to shield against a shower of bullets in Total Recall, you have a fairly good notion of the graphic nature of Verhoeven’s oeuvre, and what to expect from Hollow Man.
The movie’s opening scene, in which a lab rat meets its end in the jaws of an invisible animal, makes clear that the audience will be confronting the dark side of its subject matter: turning a human being invisible. But before the blood really spills, the movie introduces Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant and cocky scientist, as well as his two main assistants, his ex-girlfriend Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue) and her current boyfriend Matt Kensington (James Brolin) though he and Linda are hiding their relationship from Sebastian, fearing his jealous response.
It turns out that they are right to be afraid. But because their initial concern establishes that Sebastian is from the start something of a menace, he has nowhere to go as a character. The film presents everyone around Sebastian Matt and Linda and the rest of the scientific team simply and sympathetically. Linda and Matt are a hard-working, loving couple, and the subordinate staff appear to be decent folks who are dedicated to the project. Nothing that these characters do throughout the rest of the film causes us to view them any differently. Sebastian is another issue. Early scenes show his egoism (when computer technician Frank Chase [Joey Slotnick] jokingly refers to himself as “God,” Sebastian corrects him by saying, “You’re not God. I am”), his insensitivity (Sebastian casually orders that a test animal be cut up, purposefully irritating veterinarian Sarah Kennedy [Kim Dickens]), and his lack of ethics (Sebastian decides to hide the team’s success from their financial backers, the Pentagon, so that he might continue the project on his own).
These various instances don’t exhibit Sebastian as a villain, but neither do they endear him to the audience. Instead, they prime the viewer to despise him later on, after the experiment enters “Phase 3,” when he tests the invisibility serum on a human, that is, himself. When he and the team are unable to reverse the effect and he’s stuck in a transparent state indefinitely, Sebastian becomes not just mean, but insane.
Hollow Man asks the question “What would you do if no one could see you?” But a better question, in Sebastian’s case, might be, “What would you do if you were a narcissistic misogynist and no one could see you?” The answer is: sexually harass your ex-girlfriend, ogle and assault your attractive neighbor, threaten and murder your staff members, and even kill a poor little puppy dog simply because it won’t stop barking.
Sebastian’s evil behavior ends up delivering little more than shock value. He experiences no great moral dilemma, other than a brief conflict in which he struggles with the implications of sneaking into his neighbor’s apartment to get a better look at her. Basically, he progresses from merely unpleasant to homicidal without any detailing of his psychological shift. I was left with many questions: Does Sebastian realize that he is a monster? Does he recognize that his treatment of his neighbor and Linda is demeaning and repulsive? Does he does he want to return to visibility or does he want to use his newfound power for some kind of malevolent master plan?
Verhoeven and screenwriter Andrew V. Marlowe seem more concerned with thrilling the audience than in exploring any of these questions or delving into the quandary of “invisibility ethics” the conflict between what one can do and what one should do under extraordinary circumstances. Sebastian eventually traps his staff in the research compound and attempts to snuff them by crowbar, sulfuric acid, strangulation, and other devious means. The effects are awe-inspiring (watching an invisible man drown one of his victims in a pool is admittedly enjoyable), but leave viewers separated from Sebastian and his experience.
This might not be a problem if Linda turned out to be a more compelling character, but the film invests little emotion in either her or Matt. When Linda shifts into full-on Sigourney Weaver mode, bandaging up Matt’s wounds and hunting down Mr. Invisible with a homemade flamethrower followed by the requisite false ending, it becomes evident just how empty Hollow Man really is. Even given her tremendous courage and spunk, Linda is never much more than a good-hearted character who becomes the hero in order to bring the plot to a “satisfying” conclusion, in which the villain gets his just desserts.
And so, we are left without a compelling or empathetic central character. If Verhoeven had attempted to weave more humanity, along with something of an exploration of the moral dilemmas associated with Sebastian’s invisibility similar to the ways he entwined themes of identity, violence, and governance into Robocop and Total Recall, respectively, the result might have posed a more substantial “what if?” dilemma. As it is, Hollow Man is a brutal thriller with diverting special effects. But it lacks a soul.