The idea behind Hollow Man can be summed up in one line uttered by Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), the scientist with a God complex who tests a formula for invisibility on himself: “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore.”
Both screenwriter Andrew Marlowe and director Paul Verhoeven take the concept of invisibility and its ramifications very seriously.
Even though the experimental formulas used to trigger invisibility come in bright Faygo colors, the filmmakers eschew any effects that might render the condition comic. What they’re aiming for is a kind of mad-scientist story where ambition, hubris and ego are compounded by the belief that the ends always justify the means.
Caine is the workaholic center of a group of thirtysomething scientists covertly employed by the U.S. military and ensconced in the kind of underground bunker which could easily have been home to the X-Men. For internal conflicts, the intensely driven seven-person team includes Sebastian’s ex, Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue), and her new boyfriend, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin).
Verhoeven illustrates the process of becoming invisible in virtuoso special effects sequences, a complex, layer-by-layer deconstruction and rebuilding of a mammal (first a gorilla, then Sebastian), showing the inner workings — from the circulatory system and internal organs, skeletal and muscular framework, to the skin and hair — as distinct components of an immensely complex organism. The film also breaks new ground with the invisible man himself, who becomes shockingly visible when engulfed by water or smoke.
But for all its technological innovations and philosophical underpinnings about good and evil, and the checks and balances of individual conscience, in its heart of hearts, Hollow Man is a big-budget B-movie whose primary objective is to deliver thrills — and it does.
While Paul Verhoeven pumps up the action in several over-the-top sequences, he knows that Hollow Man is also about the fear of being watched, and the almost primal terror of believing that you’re alone until the moment someone you can’t see softly whispers in your ear.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.