Hollow Man (2000)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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A silly, campy movie quickly becomes a much more disturbing one in Hollow Man as a pervert turns invisible.  That pervert is Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), an intelligent scientist working on a serum that can turn someone invisible and an accompanying serum that can bring you back.

In his rush to prove his project works, and his ego to make it all his own, Caine forgoes any further testing on their lab rats and injects himself with the mixture.  After an excruciatingly painful-looking transformation, Sebastian is unable to return from being invisible, and the longer he’s transparent the more he begins to lose his mind, turning him into a monster which, the film strongly suggests, he already had lurking within him this entire time.

Turning invisible is a case of wish fulfillment, like flying or time travel, that this movie briefly plays around with.  What would you do if you could turn yourself invisible?  Greg Gunberg plays one of the more everyman-esque lab technicians in the film, and he briefly daydreams to Caine about his own devious desires.

For Caine and the movie, there are no “fun & games” to this story.  Once invisible and once he escapes into the real world, Caine jumps to a frighteningly dark place, sexually assaulting his neighbor whom he laid eyes on in the opening minutes of the film.  In this sequence the camera acts as his point of view, and with each movement around the apartment and framing of his neighbor, the idea of the camera as ‘male gaze’ becomes frighteningly literal.

There has been a lot made of the way movies sexualize and objectify women.  It happens, you know, a lot, and though many movies don’t seem to question why women are framed this way (whether made to dress a certain way, filmed from a certain angle or asked to do something a man wouldn’t have to do), Hollow Man calls direct attention to the way it films its female subjects.

That’s because of the way the camera takes on Caine’s point of view.  He’s not just an anti-hero, but something worse.  It’s not long into the movie before his actions begin to distance himself from us, and only then do we get that sequence in which we are forced to see the world (and his victim) through his eyes.  For the rest of the film it is impossible not to consider this kind of subjective, objectifying perspective even when it’s clear we’re not looking through Caine’s eyes.

So, in this way Hollow Man puts a mirror to the audience and to filmmaking as a whole.  We see the way the female characters in this film are sexualized, and we know it comes with malicious intent because of the person leering at them.  It might make us then consider such framing in other movies and ask, if there’s no one doing the leering within the text for us, then maybe it’s the audience who’s the voyeur.

So Hollow Man is incredibly uncomfortable to watch.  It’s silly and a little exciting at first, because the technology and CGI is kind of cool (right?), but before you know it any semblance of possible fun is power washed away.

Like other Paul Verhoeven films, this one is cynical and lathered in subtext, but I don’t think this can sustain the movie like it did with his past works.  I’m not sure why that is, except that this movie isn’t fun to watch.  With RoboCop and Total Recall, at least the way I saw things, those movies were silly and fun and absurd.  They bring up horrifying subtextual meaning and implications about the broader world, but they never spend too much time with these detours.  It’s only when the movie is over that you realize how much there is to chew on.

Hollow Man calls attention directly to its own subtext.  There’s ego (Caine calls himself “God”), sexual deviance, masculinity to a fault and a man running wild with his perceived power at the cost of everyone around him, but all of this is right there on the surface.  It’s not that this movie should try to be fun, but it’s just so cynical and gross, and I really can’t tell if it’s a bad movie or a good movie about something that’s not fun to think about.

Taking a step back, what we learn, it seems, is that the most powerful character is the one who doesn’t care about anyone else but himself.  The others, despite their best intentions, are hacked through like butcher meat.  They are there only to be nice and then to be killed.  In the end our two eventual heroes (Elizabeth Shue, Josh Brolin) do win, but their victory feels more a symptom of Hollywood’s need for a happy ending than a result of anything Verhoeven might be trying to say.

Paul Verhoeven’s movies are very critical, it seems, of the people they depict.  You know early on that Sebastian Caine isn’t a very likable guy, his coworkers and employees are certainly weary of him, but for most of the movie he gets his way.  The people around him, even at their own expense, don’t push back against him when things start getting weird.  He wins because he is all powerful, and he only dies because this kind of story needs the bad guy to die.

Even the good guys, however, are made to seem imperfect.  The Shue and Brolin characters, beyond feeling more like attractive stand ins for scientists than actual scientists, are complicit in a certain level of deception which enables Caine’s power lust.  They quickly feel remorse, of course, but they are made to feel some kernel of the same ego which drives Caine.

In fact, any movie that has people on the verge of some god-defying human-altering discovery makes it clear that their ego is a problem.  Anyone who would seek to play God, no matter how good their intentions, is falling victim to the wrong kind of ambition.  You see it, for example, in The Fly.

Up Next: Thunder Road (2018), The Meg (2018), Upgrade (2018)

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