Science fiction movies are a tough nut to crack, and films about invisibility even more so...
...While sometimes hit or miss, with the right direction and concept they can reach beyond simple entertainment into something that transcends the genre. In 2000, James Whale’s 1933 The Invisible Man adaption was the only successful look into the idea of human invisibility and its potential consequences. Approaching this material again in The Hollow Man was no small feat for Sony Pictures. Fortunately, the project attracted the attention of one of the most influential and provocative directors of the time, Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall), with mega-star Kevin Bacon (Mystic River, Tremors) close behind. It was an ambitious gamble for Sony, even with big name talent and daring visual effects at their disposal. So, in honor of Hollow Man’s anniversary, let’s take a look back at how well that gamble holds up 20 years later.
The film follows a team of scientists, led by ego-driven Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), tasked by the Pentagon to phase shift a human out of visibility and back again with no side effects. After years of failed attempts with primates and other animals, Caine and his team finally crack the process. Unbeknownst to the Pentagon, Caine volunteers himself for human testing. The shift to invisibility is a success, but the team soon find themselves unable to shift him back. After a series of bizarre events surrounding the project, the team comes to the horrifying realization that Caine has been sneaking out of the lab, doesn’t want to revert, and will do anything to make sure nobody uncovers the truth about what he has become.
Hollow Man‘s casting is spot on. Kevin Bacon shines as the ego-maniacal Sebastian Caine. Bacon is one of those rare actors that can switch convincingly from warm and inviting to menacing at the drop of a hat. His natural charisma is so magnetic his performance effortlessly draws you in before promptly sending everything to hell. The further the film goes, the more he plays into that sociopathic side and the more you absolutely buy what a monster he has become. Despite the film’s story problems, Bacon is without question perfectly suited to the role.
Bacon isn’t the only talent the film has to offer, however. The supporting cast were essentially unknowns at the time who would go on to become well-respected actors in their own right. Elizabeth Shue, Josh Brolin, Greg Grunberg, Kim Dickens, and Joey Slotnick are all wonderful, though unfortunately underutilized, particularly in the film’s last act.
Hollow Man‘s strongest point is its visual effects. Not only do they hold up after 20 years, they’re innovative enough to have kept the bar high for any Invisible Man adaptation. Caine’s transformation is still a wonder to behold. Be it splashing water or blood on him, or using fire extinguishers, or even the way thermal cameras are used in the shots with an invisible Caine, no other adaptation has come close to convincingly selling the idea of human invisibility the way Hollow Man does. Probably still the best use of his invisibility is the iconic Hollow Man mask creation scene. After the team fails to revert Caine, they pour liquid latex into thin air and it takes the shape of Bacon’s face, giving us a truly unique visual moment. Every shot with Caine post-phase shift has so much thought put into it in terms of how the lighting interacts with the mask. It’s truly spectacular. Not all of the shots are fantastic, but the various ways Verhoeven has the characters reveal Caine’s presence work as both gimmick and storytelling device.
As strong as the visual effects and the cast are, the screenplay and the direction of the story descend into a morality hole too problematic to ignore. The combination of Verhoeven’s provocative directing style and extreme depiction of just how far Caine is willing to go with his power led to the film’s downfall. Making Bacon’s Caine the protagonist was perhaps one of its biggest mistakes. While other Invisible Man films have used this style to tell their story, they created and maintained a level of empathy with the audience that isn’t kept consistent in Hollow Man. In this film, we suspect there’s something off about Caine right from the start, but we’re still with him. We’re in on the fun as, after the phase shift, he talks to, sneaks up on, and pranks the team. It’s all harmless fun and games. Problems arise when Verhoeven and the script shift focus to more problematic material: the sexual assault of two characters.
With this shift, the story becomes more misogynistic, portraying women as objects to be exploited. One can argue that this is set up early on in the film, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting. The difference between Caine and Griffin in 1933’s The Invisible Man is that Hollow Man takes the extra step in making the audience a viewer, and to an extent a participant, in Caine’s crimes by following his point of view. Verhoeven’s choice to maintain Caine’s point of view in these moments leads to some truly unsettling scenes depicting sexual assault. While he is certainly provocative for showing us everything, I feel that Invisible Man films work for what they don’t show you. We are having fun with Caine until these moments when it becomes a truly hard watch. The main thesis of the film is meant to be “Power corrupts,” but following Caine as a peeping tom that doesn’t take “No” for an answer from his ex-girlfriend proves that “Power simply removes the mask.” This upsetting shift in theme was problematic at its release and remains so 20 years later.
The assault isn’t the only discordant move in the film. Hollow Man’s third act turns the story from a promising analysis on the potential for power to corrupt into more of a slasher, which feels like a bit of an easy out and betrayal of the rest of the film. Hollow Man lacks the theme of paranoia and more complex questions asked in the far superior 1933 and 2020 adaptations. It’s easy to ask, “What would you do if you couldn’t be seen?” but the more interesting questions are, “What toll does that take on everyone else around you?”, “Who would believe you?”, “How would you believe yourself?”.
Hollow Man, visually, has a lot of great things going for it. The effects are stunning even today, and the cast is well chosen, but none of that is quite enough to make up for its more problematic, misogynistic themes. If you are looking for a thought-provoking Invisible Man film, I cannot recommend James Whale’s 1933 The Invisible Man and Leigh Whannell’s 2020 The Invisible Man highly enough. The feeling of paranoia throughout either film is more entertaining and absorbing than following a sexual predator murdering his co-workers. Verhoeven has since expressed his distaste for the film, saying, “It wasn’t the right way to tell this story.” So, in honor of its 20th anniversary, perhaps the best thing to do to celebrate is pay respect to its visual efforts but find an altogether different adaptation to watch.
By Andres Gallego