After the mixed reaction the violent Starship Troopers received, Paul Verhoeven expressed a desire to make a more "conventionally commercial blockbuster." Hollow Man is technically more conventionally commercial than Starship Troopers, but that's a bit like saying that Mulholland Drive is more conventionally commercial than Inland Empire. This is still a deeply weird, excessively violent Verhoeven flick, albeit one of his least satisfying. How many other directors would spend a $95 million budget on a splatter-filled movie about an invisible rapist?
The film's basic template is fairly familiar: this is a mad scientist story; a tale of a troubled visionary whose grand experiment goes awry. The scientist is Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon, Cop Car), a brilliant geneticist who has been working on an unusual project for the U.S. military. Caine was tasked with finding a way to make people invisible, and he has successfully completed that assignment... but he hasn't yet found a way to remove the invisibility without killing the test subject, which is clearly a big problem. When the government threatens to pull the project's funding, Sebastian volunteers to serve as the project's first human test subject. He'll make himself invisible, thus giving himself serious motivation to find a way to reverse the process. Mad scientists gotta mad scientist, I guess.
From the very beginning, it's clear that Sebastian is kind of a jerk. He seems to take a disturbing amount of pleasure in tormenting his simian test subjects, and he's comfortable with making inappropriate passes at his female co-workers. Unfortunately, invisibility begins to affect Sebastian's mind in a variety of unfortunate ways; taking his flaws and making them worse. A penchant for cruelty becomes far more severe, and sexual harassment becomes sexual assault. Slowly but surely, Sebastian's associates begin to realize that they've created a monster: a cold-blooded killer boasting a serious tactical advantage over his enemies.
There's plenty of dramatic potential in the concept (just ask H.G. Wells), but disappointingly, Verhoeven is less interested in storytelling than in fancy special effects. There are moments when Hollow Man feels more like an elaborate VFX showcase than an actual movie, which is even more of a problem now than it was in 2000 (effects which looked cutting-edge at the time largely seem clunky and outdated now). Verhoeven wrings every juvenile gimmick he can think of out of the premise (the film's low point is a scene in which an invisible hand massages another character's exposed breast - an unnervingly rape-y moment that Verhoeven plays for giggles), but seems content to let the larger story beats remain as formulaic and predictable as possible.
Sebastian is clearly a loathsome character, so the film taps Sebastian's colleague Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas) as the tale's official protagonist. Unfortunately, it's clear that the filmmakers are considerably less interested in Linda than they are in Sebastian, forcing Shue to make do with a character best described as "generic audience surrogate." Other talented players like Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), Kim Dickens (Deadwood) and Greg Grunberg (Heroes) are similarly undercooked; bewildered brainiacs who may or may not survive Sebastian's inevitable killing spree. Indeed, in its second half Hollow Man is basically a routine slasher film, with screaming teenagers replaced by nervous scientists.
There are small pleasures to be found here and there. There's a classic Verhoeven sequence in which Dickens' character frantically empties bloodbags all over an operation room in the hopes of preventing Sebastian from sneaking up on her, and Jerry Goldsmith's score is a typically intelligent piece of musical storytelling (it begins with snaky, low-key suspense music and slowly builds to a thunderstorm of brass-filled action material). Alas, the film is largely a dispiriting demonstration of a talented director putting all of his energy in the wrong place. The film was a box office hit, surprisingly enough, but remains unable to shake its legacy as an underwhelming conclusion to the Hollywood blockbuster phase of Verhoeven's career.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2000