You could remove Hollow Man from the multiplex — just quietly sneak the print out the back door — and replace it with one of the other innumerable Alien knockoffs of the last twenty years, and who would know the difference? Lock a bunch of cardboard characters in an inaccessible place and set a monster loose — those left standing in the end will invariably be the cast members with the highest billing. Damn you, Ridley Scott, for making such an original and terrifying movie that every hack screenwriter and director has found himself inspired by it.
The Invisible Man reimagined for the six people who have never seen Alien, Hollow Man starts out, at least, the way good-bad science-fiction horror movies should: It grabs you with a wowser of an opening. Working under top-secret, high-security conditions for the Pentagon, genius scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon: My Dog Skip, Stir of Echoes) is developing a technology to render mammals invisible, with the help of a small team that includes Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin: Best Laid Plans, Nightwatch) and Linda Foster (Elisabeth Shue). Without the knowledge of their Pentagon overlords, Sebastian wants to move to human testing, and he wants to be the first subject, natch. Matt and Linda — against their better judgment, which will of course prove to be prophetic — and the rest of the crew shoot Sebastian up with their invisibility serum, which shifts the subject into another quantum reality or something — the technobabble sounds good but is pretty much besides the point.
And — wow — a lot of Silicon Graphics computing power went into making the going-invisible process as cool-gross as you could imagine. Sebastian doesn’t fade away, like in the old Invisible Man movie — he disappears, layer by layer. Skin evaporates, then muscle, then organs, and so on. And it takes a long time to happen. (Earlier we watched as a gorilla test-subject reappeared, the same slow, icky-awesome process in reverse.) Now you see Sebastian — now you don’t.
Granted, it’s really only the special effects — which are truly amazing — that make the first half hour of Hollow Man riveting, and you could leave after that and not miss anything. Because, in the way of bad-bad science-fiction horror movies, Hollow Man doesn’t know what to do with its intriguing setup. Think of all the neat things you could do if you were invisible — you could sneak into George Lucas’s office and read the script for Episode II, for one thing — and you won’t see most of them here.
Okay, just about any warm-blooded heterosexual guy who suddenly find himself invisible is gonna take the opportunity to indulge in a little voyeurism. Sebastian proved himself a bit of a peeping tom before he went invisible, and why would he change? Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) loves tits — he’s the man responsible for Showgirls, after all — but he should know that tits get boring very quickly — he’s the man responsible for Showgirls, after all, and even warm-blooded heterosexual guys will tell you that that flick removed all the pleasure from the simple male joy of looking at tits. But that’s just about all Sebastian does, until he starts going bonkers as a result of the quantum shifting or whatever it is. The gorilla went crazy, too, so it’s not like Sebastian shouldn’t have expected this. Or maybe it was just that he discovered, thanks to his invisibility, whom his ex-girlfriend — Linda, of course — has been secretly banging since she broke up with him. Whatever the reason, Sebastian is mad as hell, and if he has to commit a little mass murder to feel better, so be it.
Sebastian, it turns out, is not only a quantum-invisibility genius but, conveniently, also precisely the kind of computer-programming genius required to trap his team in their underground lab — he shuts down the only elevator into the complex. Eventually, the survivors of Sebastian’s killing spree climb up the access ladder in the elevator shaft, and one can’t help but wonder why they didn’t use it earlier… like right after Sebastian’s computer high jinks shut down the elevator. But that would have stolen from Verhoeven the chance to do his Ridley Scott imitation with a hunt- ’em- down- and- kill- ’em, and- then- there- were- none third act, and the chance to indulge his other deep and abiding love, for gallons and gallons of blood. Okay, he does use the blood in an amusing and clever way at one point, but who cares? Hollow Man is the brand of movie in which, when it seems as if the monster is dead but the movie continues anyway, you know the monster is getting ready to spring into action again. We’ve seen this before, a hundred times, and done better. And Elisabeth Shue, lovely as she is, is no Sigourney Weaver.
As my moviegoing companion wondered, “Why do all movie scientists look like Elisabeth Shue, and all real scientists look like Carl Sagan?” That’s because the real science fiction in Hollow Man is that the entire story takes place in an alternate universe where everyone is beautiful and scientists under government contract can afford to live in luxury apartments and drive expensive cars, like Sebastian’s Porsche and Linda’s classic Benz. (Or maybe that’s why the Pentagon budgets $30,000 for a hammer.) Sebastian is more a rock star than a scientist, who lives for the “the grandeur, the spectacle” of science, which only exists in the same alternate universe — and he has no patience for details, which is what science in the real world is.
So, take away Linda, who tries to invoke Ripley’s fury but can’t manage more than plucky Girl Scout resourcefulness, and Sebastian, who is little more than an overgrown adolescent, and would we miss them? Presto change-o! Invisible movie.