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Hollow Man

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Mary Jo Randle, Greg Grunberg, Steve Altes, William Devane, Rhona Mitra, Joey Slotnick

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

One of my earliest memories was of my asking my mother a philosophic question at the age of three. "Mommy," I said, mouth open with awe, "Does God see me now?" "Of course He does," my mother said, which led to my follow up, "Does He watch me when I'm sleeping?" "He does that too," was the answer, predictably enough, though I don't think I'd have made a fascinating subject doing that. Finally, with a tremor in my voice, "Mommy, does God see me when I'm in the bathroom?" "He can do that too," was the reply I fully expected, at which point I vowed that I'd always be a good boy, because who knows what could happen when I even entertained an evil thought?

Look at this from an inverted viewpoint. What would you be like if you had this Divine power to see others at any time that you wished, and others would not be able to see you in return? Would you be a cherubic person, wishing everyone the best, helping out when you could do so without being observed? Could be. But recall the famous saying of Lord Acton: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, then. If you had this absolute power, what would you really do? In his envelope-pushing movie, Paul Verhoeven, veteran of such classic entertainments as "Showgirls," goes with the views of writers Gary Scott Thompson and Andrew W. Marlowe ("Air Force One"), and decides that a person with the power of invisibility would be corrupt. He would do evil. He would be the Devil.

Here, then, is a powerful theme to explore. If you expect Verhoeven to knock out an intellectual exercise on the nature of absolute power, you'd be sadly mistaken, and if you try to judge "Hollow Man" by literary standards, you'd be looking at the movie the wrong way. Forget literary standards. Leave that arena to the book critics. Remember that movies, particularly commercial movies, emphasize movement, action, dream-like states, and assess this tale by cinematic standards. Why? Because so far as the story line goes, the sci-fi/horror yarn is by the numbers. You know who's going to die and who will live to tell the tale. You know that the villain is going to make the usual mistake in the end of talking too much instead of killing quickly. Though Plato talked about the nature of morality (do we abstain from evil because of our conscience, or because we don't want to go to jail) and Christopher Marlowe in 1616 asked the Devil to "so charme me here/That I may walke invisible to all,/doe what ere I please, unseen by any,") you won't find gems of literary wit in the movie itself.

For special effects Verhoeven trots out some stuff that allegedly was not do-able as recently as last year, and would have been considered way beyond the powers of filmmakers the likes of horrormeister James Whale, whose 1933 "The Invisible Man" was then considered about as far as movie makers would ever go. (That classic, which made Claude Rains a household name, was of a mad scientist who makes himself invisible and wreaks havoc on the natives of his British country village.) "Hollow Man" is more like Lambert Hilyer's 1936 film "The Invisible Ray," showing scientist Boris Karloff contracting radiation that slowly deteriorates his mind, except that in this case, power, not radiation, plays dangerous tricks on the subject's reason.

The story line is simple enough. Laboratory scientists Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin), Sarah (Kim Dickens), Carter Abby (Greg Grunberg), Janice (Mary Jo Randle) and Linda Foster (Elizabeth Shue) are working on a Pentagon-funded project to create invisibility--a technique that would have obvious benefits for American defense. Having successfully knocked out human visibility on a gorilla and restored the beast to perceptible form, Sebastian and his ex-sweetheart Linda decide to override protocol and experiment with a human being--without the permission of Pentagon bigwig Dr. Arthur Kramer (William Devane).

When project boss Sebastian volunteers as guinea pig, he injects himself with an irradiated serum that triumphantly turns him invisible, but alas, the scientists are unable to bring him back. He can be seen only when he sheathes himself with a special gel or when immersed in water or blanketed with steam or through special tinted glasses that the research team members possess. Guess what? Sebastian doesn't care. Fortified with some of the power of God Himself to wander about unnoticed, he can be voyeur, he can mess with people, he can even injure and kill them with impunity. Lord Acton was right. Add to the mix that Sebastian is already enraged that his former girl friend, Linda is now romantically tied to fellow scientist Matt Kensington and you have a Devil's broth to stir up for the remainder of the picture's 110 minutes. As Sebastian drives away from the lab to ponder the evil ways he will use the power, he begins by scaring a couple of kids in an adjoining car. They look at his gel-sheathed face and see a hollowed-out area where the eyes should be. They scream for their mommy. And this is just the beginning of Sebastian's descent into madness.

The most electrifying special effect is the animation given to what is known in encyclopedias and on some computer software as The Illustrated Man, a glossy and impressive display of our internal matter, from top to bottom: bones, veins, arteries, organs. Leonardo da Vinci had to cut down hanged criminals and dissect them in his lab to find out what went on internally. Centuries passed by before William Harvey told us how blood circulates. But now, photographer Jost Vacano plays doctor by seemingly taking his camera close up to the tortured body of Sebastian Caine, writhing in pain as he slowly deconstructs. The skin gives way to this internal view as we look at what our biology teacher told us is just a couple of bucks worth of chemicals. We see well beyond what an MRI can show the most experienced radiologist, and what's more the movement of these body parts is made even scarier by Jerry Goldsmith's loud and pulsating original score of tension-building discordant music.

"Stir of Echoes" veteran Kevin Bacon plays the flip side of his role in the David Koepp production just months ago, in which he was a man who, under hypnosis, could see what others could not. He makes as fine a villain here as he made a good-guy father in Jay Russell's sentimental "My Dog Skip," but because the script is not this movie's high point, he cannot bring out much three-dimensionality from Elizabeth Shue as Nicolas Cage did in the wonderful "Leaving Las Vegas." Since Sebastian is a heroic scientist at the start of the movie, volunteering to risk his life by being the first guinea pig for the experiment, Verhoeven wants us to ponder to what degree we continue to root for him even as he plummets into the madness of absolute power. "Hollow Man" shines cinematically with blockbusting effects. But considering the philosophers and writers quoted in the production notes--Christopher Marlowe and Plato, and I suppose we could throw in Dostoevski and Shakespeare and just about anyone who pondered the role of conscience and morality--much more could have been made of the narrative.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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