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'Hollow Man' Sees Through All The Horror-Film Conventions.

By James DiGiovanna

AUGUST 14, 2000:  DIRECTOR PAUL Verhoeven is, without a doubt, the greatest genius working in big budget films today. Of course, the competition is not exactly stiff, but still, his capacity to create movies that work simultaneously as mindless entertainment and as deeply cynical commentary on mindless entertainment sets him above both the makers of blockbusters and the independent filmmakers who present their art without artifice.

Probably the finest example of Verhoeven's double cinema is Starship Troopers, a film that had American audiences unselfconsciously rooting for Nazis. It was a cruel joke on the moviegoing public, and one that tickled the fancy of Verhoeven's more subtle viewers.

With Hollow Man Verhoeven knows that we're on to him, and so plays a game that sucks in even his jaded fans: It's a horror movie that makes you root for the villain, not because he's misunderstood, but because he makes pure evil seem so irresistible.

The movie opens with an invisible dog devouring a rat, the rodent's blood outlining the dog's transparent teeth and slavering maw. It then cuts to a scene of scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon, the finest second-string actor since Vic Tayback passed on) eating a Twinkie. It seems that the Twinkie stands in for the rat, until Caine looks out his window at a woman undressing in a neighboring building and the real metaphor is splashed on the screen.

Caine's big scientific project is invisibility, and not just so he can look at naked people without being seen himself (although, as it turns out, that is his primary goal). Also, he's employed by the U.S. military, which wants invisible people to help spread justice and democracy to some of the countries that we haven't invaded yet.

So Caine sets about turning gorillas invisible. One shudders to think what the army would do with a battalion of invisible gorillas. In a bit of foreshadowing, one of these invisible gorillas even gets loose and starts terrorizing the research facility, which, frankly, would have been horror movie enough for most directors.

Verhoeven, though, goes the next step and has Caine make himself invisible, vanishing, as it were, into death's other kingdom. However, instead of using his new super-power for good, Caine immediately begins doing things like watching people urinate, or unbuttoning the tight, crop-top sweaters that all the female research scientists are wearing. In the eerie world of Hollow Man, it seems that going braless under a tight sweater is regulation standard for the military's best minds, assuming said minds have nice racks.

Anyway, the point is, apparently, that Caine is not a very nice guy. And yet he is the central character of the film. Nor is he the standard antihero, who is usually a romantic figure on some level. Caine is rather more of an overbearing weenie, the kind of guy who tells his colleagues that he should be thought of as some kind of God, and then spends his off-hours peeping at women he doesn't have the guts to talk to.

But somehow, by the time he starts going on his killer rampage, he has the audience's sympathy. I mean, who wouldn't get a little carried away if given super invisibility power? Normally, a character like Caine would appear late in the film, or would have far fewer lines than the heroic characters, thus making him less sympathetic by virtue of his distance from the viewer. Verhoeven, however, focuses almost exclusively on Caine, giving us a sort of Heart of Darkness from Mister Kurtz's perspective.

While the extreme antihero has been done before in films like Henry, Portrait of Serial Killer, Caine differs in that he's not insane or incomprehensible. It's the mundane nature of his evil that makes him so compelling.

To this end, Verhoeven plays with a lot of the conventions of the modern horror movie. In a sly pun on the slasher movie cliché, one of the characters goes into a medical supply closet in order to throw bags full of blood on the floor. Instead of shadowy lighting and a scary house, the horror takes place in a brightly lit, sterile laboratory.

Cinematographer Jost Vacano, who has worked on almost all of Verhoeven's movies, brings the same ultra-commercial sensibility to this one that he used in Showgirls, Total Recall and Robocop, creating a slick, shiny and strangely superficial effect that nicely mimics the hollowness of the characters, all of whom are pretty unlikable.

Elisabeth Shue plays Caine's ex-girlfriend and fellow scientist, who must go after him when he starts behaving as the wind behaves, but in spite of the fact that she becomes the de facto hero of the film she's so plain in the petty selfishness of her pursuits that it's impossible to completely root for her. It doesn't help that she's dumped one loser, Caine, for another, Matt Kensington, a second-rate researcher who's mostly just her bimbo. Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as the personality-less pretty boy Kensington, and he limps through his scenes with a pathetically whipped look about him.

While Hollow Man is not as accomplished as Starship Troopers (except in the realm of special effects, where it sets new standards--the scenes where Kevin Bacon turns invisible from the outside in are enough to give Hollow Man cult status), it still has a lot to recommend it. Verhoeven has made another exploitative film that winks at its own exploitative natures, and the dialogue is full of sly jokes that work both as straight lines and self-conscious parody.

Kevin Bacon is perfect as the villainous Caine, and veteran character actor William Devane makes a nice turn as the scientist's Pentagon liaison. And, of course, in the manner of all big-budget blockbusters, it goes out not with a whimper, but a bang.


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