There are many, many productive paths a bright, ambitious young fellow can pursue in America. He can, for instance, start a mediocre rock band and try to make music for beer commercials. He can also design a Web site to advertise Web sites about Web sites. Or there's always the war on drugs, from one front, the other, or both. But it takes a special kind of guy -- say, a guy like the conventionally named scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) -- to figure out his true raison d'être, namely, becoming invisible so he can violate and slaughter people without getting caught.
Ah, rape. Such a delightful theme to weave into a science-fiction yarn, and who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) to exploit it? To his credit, Verhoeven is a crackerjack at taking his crowd-pleasing entertainments over the top, whether he's showing us packs of huge, monstrous insects stampeding toward Denise Richards' blinding teeth in Starship Troopers, or romping through the wild medieval battles of Floris, created for Dutch television decades ago. But with Hollow Man -- a coarse, nonsensical little bloodbath written by Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One, End of Days) -- he only succeeds in sensationalizing an icky guy's icky megalomania. There are amazing effects aplenty to distract us from the rotten core of this by-the-numbers thriller, but ultimately it's an ugly, insipid rape fantasy, nothing more.
"Ten bucks says I nail her first!" proclaims Sebastian to his lieutenant and fellow researcher, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin), and although he's wielding a tranquilizer gun and referring to an escaped invisible gorilla named Isabel, his vacant machismo may just as well be focused on Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue), their plucky, no-nonsense peer. Tensions run high in the big, fancy lab they share in the foul bowels of Washington, D.C., possibly because they've stolen the whole shiny shebang from Professor Xavier of X-Men, possibly because it's lined with cages of screeching beasts who'd rather not be made invisible, but more than likely because, as the probationary Sebastian tactfully growls at Linda later in the movie, "I'm stuck in this shithole . . . . You're at home fucking your boyfriend." Since that boyfriend is Matthew, and Sebastian's a wee bit on the jealous and deranged side, you just know Bacon's gonna cut footloose. And arm loose. And rib cage loose.
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Before we get to the irritatingly claustrophobic (as opposed to coolly claustrophobic, à la Alien) third act, we have two other acts to wobble through. We must go through a setup, of course, in which we get to groove on some eye-popping effects of Isabel, strapped to a table, forced by chemical injection to become visible again, from capillaries, to sinew, to bones, muscle, skin and fur (sure to put you off Sizzler for a week). We also get to know Sebastian, basically an unlikable and precocious brat whose ego (likens himself to DaVinci, holds breath for Nobel prize) is too big for anyone else to ride along in the surrogate penis of his Porsche.
One bummer about Hollow Man -- apart from watching Shue play action heroine, burping up lines like, "We're gonna take him down!" with a straight face -- is that this technically astounding cart is latched in front of the dead horse of this miserable script. Not only are the transformation scenes shockingly realistic, the team led by effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson renders the outline of the invisible Sebastian in water, steam, foam and thermal-vision, as his victims struggle to catch sight of his form. (We're forced to forget that they own spray paint.) The digital artists also do terrific subtle work, making Shue's panties and Brolin's chest hair disappear.
But why bother? For science and lurid sexuality, we've already got plenty of Cronenberg in the can.
All we have here is Bacon (who complained recently to the press that he's got a board game but no Oscars -- be a little choosier, dude!) transforming from a cruel, arrogant jerk to an invisible cruel, arrogant jerk. Perhaps the only way to appreciate Hollow Man is as a stark view of impotent male rage. At least the title fits.