Trashy, dated and totally transparent

Hollow Man (18) | Paul Verhoeven, 112 mins
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The Independent Culture

Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man is, at best, a disappointing film; at worst (its last half-hour), a trashy and derivative one. What it almost never ceases to be, though, is interesting, mostly for reasons irrespective of its very moot qualities. To explain what I mean, let me begin this review with a digression (if it's logically possible to digress before there's anything to digress from).

Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man is, at best, a disappointing film; at worst (its last half-hour), a trashy and derivative one. What it almost never ceases to be, though, is interesting, mostly for reasons irrespective of its very moot qualities. To explain what I mean, let me begin this review with a digression (if it's logically possible to digress before there's anything to digress from).

In 1942 Josef von Sternberg made a movie entitled The Shanghai Gesture. One of his typically sumptuous masterpieces of exotic flummery, set in a poisonous lotus-land of ineffable pleasures and pains, it partnered his muse, Marlene Dietrich (who had already starred in a baker's half-dozen of his works), with Victor Mature as the cryptic Omar, the self-styled "Doctor of Nothing".

What's wrong with that paragraph? Simply, the fact that Marlene Dietrich did not appear in The Shanghai Gesture. (For the record, the female lead was Gene Tierney.) Though, in film-critical terms, a fairly major error, it's one even knowledgeable cinephiles have been known to make, as the movie was somehow imbued with Marlene's indelible aura and aroma. She seemed to hover over its outré proceedings like some spectrally glamorous godmother.

Hollow Man is also haunted by a ghost, one that might be called, after Dickens, the Ghost of Science-Fiction Past: Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's a decade since Schwarzenegger represented, notably in Verhoeven's own Total Recall, Hollywood's ne plus ultra of physical indestructibility. If he was the superhero par excellence, it was for the basic reason that, to an industry in thrall to special effects, there could be no performer more emblematic than one who was himself a special effect. Pure surface, pure simulacrum - the only portrait painter who could have done justice to his metalloid chic was Tamara de Lempicka - and bereft of anything as squishily human and vulnerable as an "inside", Schwarzenegger was, as a French critic once defined Charlton Heston, an axiom of the American cinema.

Now he's one of its has-beens, nearly as old as the four senior-citizen astronauts of Space Cowboys, and Hollow Man (a title which could have been coined for Schwarzenegger) is has-been cinema. It's almost as though, denied the on-screen presence of Arnie, the whole film has transformed itself into him. Its claustrophobic textures (it has next to no exteriors) have that cod-teutonic, grey-blue sheen one remembers from his appearances in James Cameron's two Terminators. The laboratory in which most of the action unfolds recalls an era when, in the Hollywood mindset, laboratories were automatically sinister places. And the film's curiously dated "look" is baroque minimalism - which is to say, it's cool and ascetic, except that there's much too much of it. It's all so 1980s.

What's interesting about Verhoeven's vision, in short, is that it feels less like a projection into the future than a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane, proof that even the "state-of-the-art" (which, technically speaking, it is) risks becoming a paradoxically outmoded concept.

Now, the plot. Hollow Man - based, sort of, on Wells's The Invisible Man - is the one about the arrogant scientist (Kevin Bacon, bearing an uncanny likeness to the young Roman Polanski) paying the ultimate ransom for having cockily tampered with those forces of nature that, per the cliché, were never meant to be understood by mankind. (As a satire on the ethics of knowledge and power, it's too childishly formulaic to merit any serious consideration.) Having, in experiments with primates, "cracked reversion" - brought the poor beasts back from invisibility - he decides, predictably, to be his own guinea-pig. Just as predictably, the experiment is only a half-success. The first half (invisibility) is effective, the second (revisibility) not.

The special effects are, as usual, astonishing and sometimes genuinely poetic, not just in the Cocteauesque sequence in which a naked Bacon is stripped, first, of his carnal envelope then, one by one, of his heart, lungs, kidneys and lesser internal organs, but also, and perhaps above all, in the breathtaking panache with which Verhoeven - with the aid of those wizards of the post-production lab who are squeezed onto the film's end-titles like commuters on the Northern Line - contrives to show invisibility, to render it visible.

It's dispiriting, then, when one considers the film's vaguely Nietszchean pretensions - the Nietszche of "What does not kill you makes you stronger", naturally, since Hollywood screenwriters have never heard of any other - that all Bacon can think to do with his invisibility is rape a scantily clad neighbour whom he has long impotently ogled (a crime never subsequently alluded to in the narrative). Still more dispiriting are some doughy plot thickenings that arise from the sexual tensions between Bacon, his former lover (Elizabeth Shue - what on earth is she doing dans cette galÿre?) and her beefy new boyfriend (Josh Brolin). And most dispiriting of all is the endless climax, which rapidly degenerates into what I think aficionados call a gore-fest. Even I, who systematically steer clear of anything remotely resembling a slasher movie, know enough about how they function to have experienced not the faintest twinge of surprise - as for shock, forget it - when, after being pummelled, garrotted, filleted, set alight and blown to invisible smithereens, the terminally mangled Bacon succeeds yet again in pulling himself together and running ever more dementedly amok.

Which prompts another interesting question: why do special effects that are more sophisticated than one has ever seen before so frequently induce nothing but a weary sense of déjà vu?

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