After a string of bold, unflinching flicks including RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, controversial Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven set out to make what he considered a more "conventionally commercial blockbuster." This was still Verhoeven, though, so his idea of a conventional blockbuster involved turning Kevin Bacon invisible - yes, every bit of him - and turning him loose on Washington, DC.
The result was a film that received negative reviews even while its jaw-dropping invisibility effects - which still hold up pretty well 20 years later - were nominated for an Academy Award. From its heavy reliance on early CGI to its cast (including an early-career good-guy performance by Josh Brolin, years before he would turn purple to play Thanos), Hollow Man is the kind of big-budget sci-fi horror that we only got during the late '90s and early 2000s.
It is also, in its final form, a movie that only Paul Verhoeven could have made, even if it feels less like the auteur's work than many of his other pictures. Verhoeven excels at creating pulp narratives that give the audience what they think they want, only to indict them for having wanted it in the first place. With the voyeuristic themes of Hollow Man, Verhoeven explores many of the same subjects that have informed his other films, and implicates the viewer in the bad behavior of Kevin Bacon's character.
The story of Hollow Man concerns a scientist, Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), who has been tasked by the government to complete "a very specific and challenging task: to successfully phase-shift a human being out of quantum sync with the visible universe and return him safely with no aftereffects." It's sci-fi movie technobabble, but what it means is that Caine and his crew are trying to make someone invisible and then make them visible again.
By the time the movie starts, they've already succeeded with the first part. It turns out that turning someone invisible is "easy," as Sebastian puts it. It's bringing them back to visibility safely that's a challenge. So far, all the test subjects they've tried it on have perished. Sebastian plans to be the first human trial.
While the film heavily suggests that the implications of this invisibility research are military in nature - the committee that oversees the experiment is staffed mainly by generals, and the underground lab is secured by armed guards outside - the invisibility that the lab has created doesn't seem terribly useful from a strategic standpoint. After all, the invisible individuals still show up on thermal imaging and their invisibility doesn't affect their clothes or anything they're carrying, so they'd pretty much have to go into combat - or whatever other dangerous mission they were sent on - unarmed and in the buff.
This is a sci-fi horror movie from the year 2000, so of course the science behind the film's invisibility is sketchy at best. For instance, while Sebastian's team notes that Sebastian, once invisible, effectively can't close his eyes because his eyelids are now transparent, they don't discuss the fact that his eyes probably wouldn't work at all - because light would pass right through them, rather than into them.
And while Sebastian is frequently outlined in substances like water, smoke, steam, and even blood, he almost immediately sloughs whatever it is off as soon as he's out of it, and doesn't accumulate the dust and other miniscule debris that cling to our bodies over time. Strangely, though, everything he eats turns immediately invisible, rather than floating around in his now-invisible digestive system.
Also, because the invisibility is worked out by injecting something into the bloodstream, it would probably take a long time for it to get into the skeleton and render it invisible. Yet, while the skeleton is the last thing to disappear when Sebastian is turned invisible, it follows the rest of his body within seconds.
Several of the film's negative reviews make it a point to complain that Sebastian is "already unlikeable" before he ever turns invisible and starts knocking off anyone who gets in his way. But that kind of misses the point. The movie is called Hollow Man rather than The Invisible Man for a reason, and it's not just to avoid infringing on Universal's copyright. When Sebastian asks his old flame (played by Elisabeth Shue) if she wants to know what it would be like to make love to an invisible man, she replies, "It would be just like old times. You were never there."
Sebastian is already hollow before he ever turns invisible, making jokes about nonconsensual encounters with his coworkers, peeping on his neighbor while she undresses, and referring to himself (jokingly but also not) as "god." While the film makes the early claim that staying "phase-shifted" for too long causes increased aggression, Sebastian is already a dangerous narcissist even before he undergoes the treatment. Being invisible just heightens what is already there - or what isn't.
The egocentric genius is a ubiquitous trope in American movies - just look at the popularity of Robert Downey Jr. (who, according to Kevin Bacon, almost played the part of Sebastian) as Tony Stark. With Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven and Kevin Bacon intentionally turn it on its head, taking the reckless prodigy and making him the monster from frame one, though you may not immediately realize it.
"Hollow Man leads you by the hand and takes you with Sebastian into teasing behavior, naughty behavior, and then really bad and ultimately evil behavior," Verhoeven said of the film's subversive qualities. "At what point do you abandon him?" Ever the cynic, Verhoeven went on to point out that "a lot of viewers follow him further than you would expect."
Hollow Man may have been the only one of Paul Verhoeven's films that didn't have to be altered for the MPAA in order to get an R rating, but that doesn't mean it shies away from the frank eroticism and violence for which the director is known.
In fact, before we ever meet any of the human characters, the film opens with a rat entering a cage. The rat is clearly nervous, sniffing around a water dish, searching for something that it knows is there but can't see. Then, suddenly, the rat is lifted from the floor and gruesomely eaten alive by an invisible predator. Only its teeth can be seen, outlined in its victim's gore.