Though faintly connected through theme and subject to H.G. Wells’ compact cautionary novella, “The Invisible Man,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi/horror thriller, “Hollow Man,” is an intense, radical departure and closest of all to the director’s “Starship Troopers” in its combination of mind-blowing, hyper-extreme special effects and near-comic sensibility. Some auds will resist pic’s deliberate linking of pulp trashiness with a “Frankenstein”-like morality drama, but many others hungry for moviemaking that juggles big ideas and never-before-seen effects — to a degree greater than last year’s “The Matrix” — should boost opening week numbers to fairly scary heights. Long-term B.O. is much less assured, though pic’s future as a cult item is a sure bet.
The premise of humans able to make themselves physically invisible is so intrinsically cinematic that it’s a wonder that Wells’ notions haven’t been given this kind of penthouse-class treatment before.
As he demonstrated first with his wild, sexually randy Dutch pics such as “Keetje Tipple” and then with “Robocop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct” and even “Showgirls,” Verhoeven has a deep, abiding visual fascination with the human body in all of its permutations. At the same time, helmer has taken a unique approach to sci-fi, embracing the genre’s pulp roots and a lean, mean storytelling discipline.
“Hollow Man” rolls all of these elements into an entertaining concoction, evincing craftsmanship, technical wizardry and self-referential irony in a heady mix that makes pic almostintellectual among the current summer crop of dumb gross-out pics.
But even though it’sconcerned with science’s moral implications and dramatizes the tragic degeneration of a brilliant mind, pic is a combo of thrills, juicy one-liners and fine star turns by Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue.
Clever, effortless exposition is first hallmark of Andrew Marlowe’s script, which observes frustrated Caine trying to — in lab lingo repeated for comic effect — “crack reversion.” Oozing cocky arrogance, Caine’s so-called “genius” abilities aren’t only foiled by computation of how to deconstruct a body’s physical structure (for invisibility) and then reconstruct the body back again into visibility. This guy can’t even get a break trying to ogle his beautiful neighbor.
His breakthrough brings his lab team together to test an ape named Isabelle. Shue’s Linda McKay is Caine’s aide-de-camp (and his ex-g.f.), who’s now in the loving, virile arms of another key assistant, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin).
Others include animal-loving vet Sarah (Kim Dickens), good-natured Carter (Greg Grunberg), and Frank (Joey Slotnick) and Janice (Mary Randle), ultra-pros not above cracking dark jokes. Characters make snide remarks to one another from outset, setting up the pic’s campy, even soapy side, and making it clear that Caine is waging permanent macho war with Matthew, jealous that he has his gal.
This theme properly takes a backseat to the prime show, which starts with trying to make Isabelle go to invisibility and come back again. Ape is belted into patient’s seat, and given a protein serum. Effects are jaw-dropping in intensity and even visual poetry. Seldom has cinema better visualized poignancy of an animal under human control, pushing the metaphor of being humiliated and stripped of its identity.
Opening salvo of effects is right up there in pure showbiz astonishment with (coincidentally) “2001’s” “Dawn of Man” sequence and “Close Encounter’s” initial alien fly-by.
Experiment’s near-disaster is averted, suggesting that the invisibility project might be viable on humans.
Caine’s unpredictable nature is revealed in a briefing at the Pentagon where scientist, accompanied by Linda and Matthew, lies to supervising military honcho Dr. Kramer (William Devane) that the experiments are close but not a success.
Caine explains to his livid colleagues that what the Pentagon doesn’t know won’t hurt them, that they can keep control of the project while they jump to “phase three” — human experimentation.
Caine, natch, wants to be the guinea pig. In an unexpected moral moment at pic’s 30-minute mark, Caine insists to Sarah that he inject himself with serum, placing responsibility on himself if something goes wrong. Socko sequence of a whole new — seventh? –degree of Kevin Bacon revs into overdrive, as Caine’s outer skin vanishes (Verhoeven, in a touch most Yank helmers would resist, films Bacon’s entire body), followed by near-heart attack, and finally, invisibility. Not since “Altered States” has the human form been made so fantastical, yet mortal.
Pic’s tongue-in-cheek humor keeps consistently apace of building sense of dread, leading to pic’s dramatic core, as scientists realize that they can’t bring Caine back.
Reversion, at least for humans, hasn’t been “cracked,” and Caine seems to be stuck in invisible mode. Colleagues need to see Caine, so they pour plastic mold over his form, creating a haunting rubber face. Bacon’s performance is a combo of man and special effects to a far greater degree than even that other geneticist in the summer B.O. race, Eddie Murphy’s Sherman Klump, and in the last hour, this also turns into an extraordinary case of vocal thesping.
Bacon expresses Caine’s bitterness at being imprisoned in this unprecedented limbo state, but subtly suggests the man’s devolution to his worst animal instincts of fear and survival. It’s an expressionistic triumph of actor and physical effects putting voice and form to the drama’s tragic irony of a brilliant mind undone by his own work.
Finale is an elaborate continuous sequence turning underground lab into a kind of isolated space ship, with Caine on a rampage after he learns what Linda and Matthew are up to. Story’s trash/pulp sensibilities come on full display, with over-the-top one-liners and violence in the mix.
Verhoeven’s regular team of craft-artists, led by brilliant d.p. Jost Vacano (who creates a consistently high-res, brightly-lit universe that is creepier than any dark shadow), create a total science environment, down to spinning bottles of nitroglycerin.
Special fx supervisor Scott Anderson proves to be a key collaborator here, employing technology unavailable even a year ago to create not only physical disappearing processes but a wide range of guises for Caine.
No less crucial is a lush, complex, near-operatic score by Jerry Goldsmith, who surpasses even his accomplishment in “L.A. Confidential.” Fans of Hollywood at its technical best need look no further.