Out of sight

Hollow Man's potential fails to materialize

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Would someone, anyone please do something about Paul Verhoeven? OK, so his 1979 art house hit, Soldier of Orange, is about the best non-pornographic film ever to come out of Amsterdam. And, sure, he gave the world Rutger Hauer. And I am the first to admit that Robocop is a major contribution to the genre. But since then the European émigré has been working overtime to earn a place in the cinematic doghouse. I mean, let's be honest, here. Showgirls was a big enough blister to stall any three normal careers. But not Pauly's ... like some demented Energizer Bunny of the Damned, he just keeps going and going.

Sooner or later, we have to draw the line somewhere, and I say we draw it at Hollow Man. It's time to stop the madness.

So why blame Verhoeven for this latest let-down? Well, for starters, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the concept of the film. It's full of compelling ideas and ingenious spins on H.G. Wells' much-adapted novel The Invisible Man, a story which seems, like much of Wells' work, more powerful and timely today than ever.

Kevin Bacon, who shows more skin than a Chippendale these days, plays Sebastian Caine, a brilliant if megalomaniacal genius who leads a secret team of government scientists who have invented a formula capable of rendering living creatures totally, if slowly and agonizingly, invisible. Reluctant to hand his invention over to the Pentagon bigwigs who commissioned it, Caine becomes a human guinea pig and tests the serum on himself.

Unfortunately, the antidote that brought the animal test subjects back to light fails to restore Caine. As his friends rush to "cure" him, the inventor's mental state begins to deteriorate and sure enough, before you know it, the researchers are trapped in their hideout with a mass murderer who's both out of sight and out of his mind.

Sounds pretty cool, right? And backing up this rich set-up is an array of top-drawer digital tricks, including a nifty transformation effect that invisiblizes man and beast, layer by layer, giving us peeled gorillas and Bacon that instantly call to mind those see-through model kits of yesteryear. Technology also allows the filmmakers to reveal occasional tantalizing tidbits of the faded Caine as he touches smoke or water, or the fog from a fire extinguisher. Probably the first film ever to fully exploit the potential of skinless full-frontal nudity, Hollow Man also finds a way to do just about every thing you could think of doing with an invisible man.

Except, of course, tell a good story about him.

Oh, Hollow Man gets out of the gate smoothly enough, and for about 20 minutes or so, Verhoeven manages to maintain the illusion that he is making a Grade-A movie. There even seem to be moments when Verhoeven is trying to stretch beyond the simple-minded mechanics of the blockbuster formula and make us (gasp)think — about the relationship between science and the State, about how morality erodes when we know we can't be caught. But then the film starts to unravel faster than the protagonist, and twice as painfully. Caine's adolescent exploitation of his unseen state — playing the ultimate peeping Tom, feeling up his weirdly yielding female colleagues — plays like a parody. Which makes it all the more disorienting when the mad doctor graduates suddenly from sexual harassment to serial murder, not to mention rape, cruelty to animals and bad laboratory safety habits.

As arbitrary as Caine's unmotivated mood swings are, he's positively three-dimensional compared to the other cardboard cut-outs populating the picture. On the plus side, by the time the film terminally dissolves into a tangled mass of transparent slasher-pic clichés (Verhoeven throws in everything but the shower scene) and they start succumbing one by one to their invisible assailant, we hardly miss 'em. Tragically, Caine's ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) a chronically underdressed biologist more interested in shagging than science, survives.

Pure Verhoeven.

No matter how strong the premise, no matter how convincing the effects, the flailing Dutchman just can't seem to get out of the cul-de-sac that faces a formerly committed filmmaker working in the world's most profitable and most conservative cinema. Verhoeven, it seems, thinks he is a satirist. Hollywood thinks he is a big-budget genre hack. Trying to serve both agendas at once, he keeps making movies that fail on both fronts. Total Recall's thought-provoking premise was lost in the film's translation into an Arnold Schwarzenegger flex-a-thon; Showgirls attempts at self-consciousness couldn't compete with the soft-core silliness; the farce on Fascism and total war in Starship Troopers was completely illegible behind all the big bugs — and let's not even think about Basic Instinct.

Hollow Man, too, succumbs in the end. One by one, the drama, the ideas and the subtexts disappear, leaving it just another loud, hollow high-concept summer fix.