Hollow Man (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It is my fondest dream that some day filmmakers will realize that great visual effects do not by themselves equate to a worthwhile motion picture experience. However, until that state of cinematic utopia arrives, audiences will be forced to endure movies like Hollow Man - masterpieces of visual ingenuity that are sadly lacking in many other creative categories. And, while the special effects in Hollow Man are eye-popping, the film is hamstrung by two major flaws - bad acting and an initially smart script that inexplicably devolves into derivative action and pointless violence.

Hollow Man starts out with promise. The first scene, with an invisible predator turning a rat into a bloody snack, is startling. Then, over the course of the next hour, director Paul Verhoeven effectively ratchets up the tension through the use of those state-of-the-art visual effects, point-of-view camera shots, and creepy, "are they or aren't they?" dream sequences. Unfortunately, just as things are getting interesting, it all unravels. The movie turns into a mindless gorefest, the genius character suddenly suffers a cataclysmic brain cramp, and the action begins to resemble Alien light (complete with motion detectors and a scary predator). But, as kick-ass heroes, neither Elisabeth Shue nor Josh Brolin can hold a candle to Sigourney Weaver.

In fact, that's part of the problem. One of the first rules for success in any science fiction horror endeavor is to make the protagonists at least as charismatic or interesting as the villain - something that doesn't happen here. Not only do good guys Linda (Shue) and Matt (Brolin) lack anything resembling personality or chemistry (they're supposed to be lovers, but they generate less heat than a brother and sister), but the actors portraying them show little in the way of talent. Shue has done good work in the past (Leaving Las Vegas), but you'd never know it from her performance here. Brolin is as wooden as he has been in every other role. The scene-stealer is Kevin Bacon (who recently saw dead people in Stir of Echoes), which is interesting since his character is invisible for half of the movie. When he isn't a special effect, he's hidden behind a latex mask or existing as a disembodied voice.

This is an Invisible Man tale, but it's not an adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, and Bacon does not attempt to replicate any aspect of Claude Rains' chilling performance. Bacon's character, Sebastian Caine, is a scientist with a major case of hubris. Not content to think of himself as a mere genius, he willingly answers to the name of "God." Along with a six-member team that includes his ex-lover Linda, the personality deprived Matt, a petulant veterinarian named Sarah (Kim Dickens), and the always respectful Carter (Greg Grunberg), Sebastian has created a formula that "phase shifts a human being out of quantum synch with the known universe", thereby rendering them invisible. (Star Trek would be proud of such technobabble.) Thus far, the process has only been tried on animals, but Sebastian is eager - too eager, perhaps - to become the first human guinea pig. "You don't make history by following the rules," he argues. "You make it by seizing the moment."

I don't have a problem with gore and violence in movies - they have their place, like anything else. And, in anything directed by Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers), these elements are guaranteed to be in evidence. However, in Hollow Man, at least a portion of the bloody mayhem seems gratuitous. In fact, the level of violence and gore is almost comical, and this has the unintended effect of muting any growing sense of menace or tension late in the movie. It doesn't help that there are some obvious steals from Alien. Or that the protagonists are so uninteresting that we find ourselves rooting for Sebastian, who's a rapist and a murderer. Villains are often the most interesting characters, but it's the job of the filmmakers to get the audience to sympathize with the less flamboyant hero. Thus, in Die Hard, Alan Rickman steals the movie, but we're with Bruce Willis all the way. That doesn't happen in Hollow Man. Linda and Matt are boring. Who cares if they live or die? I had more interest in the secondary characters.

So it all comes back to the special effects, which are the most impressive to grace the screen since those in last year's The Phantom Menace. Through the magic of movies, we observe the layers of skin, muscle, tissue, and bone being peeled away as a body is slowly rendered invisible. We see a beating heart, inflating lungs, and veins pulsing with newly-pumped blood. But are a few scenes like that worth attending a movie for? Because Hollow Man doesn't have a lot more to offer - there's a seemingly can't miss premise and a strong setup, but the follow-through loses momentum and the climax disintegrates. In 1933's The Invisible Man, the storyline generated a powerful sense of pathos. Some 67 years later, the same core idea results in a tale that squanders its flashes of inspiration through sensationalistic tactics that obfuscate the human tragedy. Give me Claude Rains any day. Unlike Hollow Man, that movie has a heart - even if we never see it.

Hollow Man (United States, 2000)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Mary Jo Randle, Joey Slotnick, William Devane
Screenplay: Andrew W. Marlowe
Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2000-08-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1