Friday, July 24, 2009
Hollow Man was the last of Paul Verhoeven's run of Hollywood genre films, made following the lackluster reception of his previous two pictures, Showgirls and Starship Troopers. Both of those box office flops were later reappraised by various audiences as trashy cult/camp successes or genuine masterpieces, but that doesn't seem likely to happen for Hollow Man, which similarly flopped upon release but seems to reveal the director reaching the limits of his interest in making this kind of film within Hollywood. That's a shame, because the film's concept is certainly the kind of thing one would expect Verhoeven to eagerly embrace, to transform into the kind of morally ambiguous, pulpy genre deconstruction/celebration that he does best. Instead, while the film is good — even bracingly potent — in isolated stretches, it's sabotaged at every turn by indifferent scripting, disconnected acting, and one of the most absurd action denouements in Verhoeven's career. The film introduces some interesting concepts, some tantalizing hints of the film Verhoeven at his best could make of this material, and then destroys everything in a raging inferno.
The film is the story of government research scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), who's leading a project to discover a way to make people invisible. Naturally, once he's perfected the process, or believes he has, he wants to switch from testing the procedure on apes to, in the grand tradition of movie mad scientists, volunteering himself as the first human test subject. It's a heady concept, and Verhoeven hints right from the beginning that the film's going to be about Sebastian exploring his darkest impulses without moral accountability. Even before he turns invisible, Sebastian is kind of a jerk, a brilliant guy who treats his co-workers with barely disguised contempt, particularly the women, with the one exception of his ex-girlfriend Linda (Elisabeth Shue), who he treats just slightly better because he'd like to sleep with her again. He's also a voyeur, habitually spying on a woman who lives across the street from his apartment; she generously feeds his voyeurism by stripping down to her lingerie every night, tantalizing him, before closing the shades to finish undressing. It's obvious, then, what kinds of things Sebastian will want to do once he's invisible. This is a classic pulp premise, the invisible man who primarily uses his gift so he'll get to see lots of naked women.
To some extent, Verhoeven delivers on this premise, having Sebastian immediately abuse his power for sexual thrills. Tellingly, it's not being invisible per se that gets him off, but the ability to do what he wants without being held accountable. His first sexual assault, walking up to a sleeping girl and unbuttoning her blouse, doesn't necessarily require him to be invisible in order to do it. The invisibility comes in handy only when she wakes up, so he can escape literally unseen. Being invisible doesn't so much open up new things for him to do, it merely allows him to do what he already could've done, except now he can do it assured that he won't get caught. The moral dilemma at the story's core, then, is the question of whether morality disappears with the possibility of punishment and accountability: if a man can do what he wants without anyone ever seeing him do it, what will he do? Unfortunately, Verhoeven seems largely uninterested in these questions, or at least uninterested in the possibility of exploring them in this particular movie. Instead, the film rapidly degenerates into a rather typical, if particularly lousy, horror film.
The second half of the film does have some inventive, tense horror sequences, in which Sebastian stalks his fellow scientists after trapping them in the underground bunker where they work. These sequences revolve around the clever back-and-forth as Sebastian tries to maintain his edge of invisibility, while the other scientists attempt to find ways to track him, from spraying him with various substances to using heat and motion sensors. These scenes have the claustrophobic intensity of something like Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World, one obvious touchstone among many similar films where a group of potential victims are trapped in an enclosed, inescapable space with a killer. But as good as these scenes sometimes are as slasher/victim duels, it can't help but be disappointing that Verhoeven abandons his premise's moral concepts for such generic fare. Moreover, the final twenty minutes are an absolutely torturous attempt at a big action finale, in which Sebastian seems miraculously unkillable as explosions fill the underground complex. This ridiculous final battle all takes place in an elevator shaft where the last surviving protagonists, Linda and her scientist boyfriend Matt (Josh Brolin) struggle to escape and fight off the half-materialized Sebastian while an elevator literally bounces up and down the shaft, rocketing around crazily amidst the flames. It's a mess, a halfheartedly assembled compendium of action movie clichés that definitively erases any possibility that the film could have redeemed itself with its conclusion.
The film has other problems, too. One of these is that Sebastian is such a jerk to begin with that his gradual transformation into an even bigger jerk isn't really that interesting or morally complex. This should be a Jeckyll and Hyde story, a story about the dark impulses contained in all men, but in this case it's not exactly shocking when we learn that this sexist asshole is capable of rape, sexual assault and murder once he's invisible. The film's subtexts about male sexual voracity are poorly developed to begin with, limited to a handful of throwaway scenes, like the one where Sebastian's fellow scientist Carter (Greg Grunberg) is caught reading a porn magazine and talking dirty to the pictures. If the script, by Air Force One scribe Andrew W. Marlowe, intends this stuff to be a clever way of showing that all men are pigs, let's just say it doesn't work.
In fact, the script is arguably responsible for much of the film's failure, in that it takes a striking premise and then slowly, methodically, wears away anything that might be interesting about it, replacing it with clichés. The dialogue is almost unrelentingly generic, riddled with awkward phrasing and lines of almost astonishing mundanity. It's the kind of script that sabotages any possibility of meaningful acting, and the cast mostly responds by not really bothering to act. Bacon is a sneering cipher, and then he disappears altogether, spending most of the film unseen, acting from behind a rubber mask or various CGI effects. But even then he's not nearly as bad as Shue's sniveling, characterless Linda, who keeps giving in to steamy moments with her former lover Sebastian and then pulling back at the last moment to show she's a good girl after all. She's cheery and empty, while Brolin's Matt is stoic and empty, and most of the rest of the cast are just warm bodies, biding their time in waiting for the slasher finale. Only Kim Dickens, as the veterinarian Sarah, turns in a decent performance, emanating the low-key bitchy resentment that Verhoeven has always seemed to cherish in his female characters.
On the positive side, the film does make interesting use of its special effects. The CGI used here hasn't dated well, as tends to be the case with CGI, and the effects have a blatant unreality that makes them look cartoony. Even so, there's a real sense of wonder to scenes like the one in which an invisible gorilla rematerializes one layer at a time: first its veins become visible, its neural pathways, its muscles and organs, its skeleton, the layers of skin piling on before finally reaching its hairy exterior. Even with effects that today look substandard, the scene amply captures the sense of magic and awe in this scene. Later, when the effect is reversed for the scene where Sebastian disappears, it's equally powerful and unsettling, an image of the human body peeled away layer by layer, revealing what's inside, making us tick, and then obscuring all of those innards as well.
The film comes alive in moments like this. It comes alive, too, in a scene preceding Sebastian's disappearing act, when, in the hallway leading to the lab, Sebastian tells an astonishingly dirty joke. It involves Superman, a nude sunbathing Wonder Woman, and an invisible man, and it neatly encapsulates the film's anxiety about what men will do when granted power and true freedom from responsibility. It's a joke about what happens when someone can do something without anyone ever knowing, and its twist relies on the fact that while Sebastian is telling the joke, the audience suspects that he's implicitly comparing himself to Superman; after all, he's always joking that he's playing God. But it turns out that he doesn't aspire to be Superman, and despite his patter he doesn't really think he's God either. He just wants to be the invisible man. He aspires to be a man shorn of the moral responsibility that comes with having a face, a tangible presence in the world. This lewd, tasteless joke is one of the film's best, most revelatory moments. It's very tempting to attribute it to Verhoeven; it seems impossible that it could be a product of the same script that is everywhere else so lifeless, humorless, and blind to the ideas and possibilities embedded in this material.
The film is undoubtedly a failure, and it's probably no coincidence that after this Verhoeven finally departed from Hollywood, returning to the Netherlands to make his next feature, the creatively rejuvenating Black Book. Hollow Man, though interesting at times, reveals the limits of Verhoeven's ability to play around within Hollywood genre tropes. He seems constrained by his material, prevented from really taking this story to its naturally lurid, morally inquisitive excesses. And a reined-in, neutered Verhoeven is a director who has had his best tools and resources stripped away from him.