Ah, rape. Such a delightful theme to weave into a science-fiction yarn, and who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) to exploit it? To his credit, Verhoeven is a crackerjack at taking his crowd-pleasing entertainments over the top, whether he's showing us packs of huge, monstrous insects stampeding toward Denise Richards' blinding teeth in Starship Troopers or romping through the wild medieval battles of Floris (created for Dutch television decades ago). But with Hollow Man -- a coarse , nonsensical little bloodbath written by Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One, End of Days) -- he only succeeds in sensationalizing an icky guy's icky megalomania. There are amazing effects aplenty to distract us from the rotten core of this by-the-numbers thriller, but ultimately it's an ugly, insipid rape fantasy, nothing more.
"Ten bucks says I nail her first!" proclaims Sebastian to his lieutenant and fellow researcher, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin), and although he's wielding a tranquilizer gun and referring to an escaped invisible gorilla named Isabel, his vacant machismo might just as well be focused on Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue), their plucky, no-nonsense peer. Tensions run high in the big, fancy lab they share in the foul bowels of Washington, D.C., possibly because they've stolen the whole shiny shebang from Professor Xavier of X-Men, possibly because it's lined with cages of screeching beasts who'd rather not be made invisible, but more than likely because, as the probationary Sebastian tactfully growls at Linda later in the movie, "I'm stuck in this shithole ... you're at home fucking your boyfriend." Since that boyfriend is Matthew, and Sebastian's a wee bit on the jealous and deranged side, you just know Bacon's gonna cut footloose. And arm loose. And rib-cage loose.
Before we get to the irritatingly claustrophobic (as opposed to coolly claustrophobic, á là Alien) third act, in which Sebastian traps his hipster research team and uses his surprise bonus gift of superhuman strength to pick them off one by one, we have two other acts to wobble through. The first one is setup, of course, in which we get to groove on some eye-popping effects of Isabel, strapped to a table, forced by chemical injection to become visible again, from capillaries, to sinew, to bones, muscle, skin and fur. We also get to know Sebastian, basically an unlikeable and precocious brat whose ego (likens himself to DaVinci, holds breath for Nobel Prize) is too big for anyone else to ride along in the surrogate penis of his Porsche.
Once we've thoroughly examined the expensive whirlygigs and doohickies and listened to endless babble about "serial-irradiated proteins" and the like, we get to know the slacker geniuses who make up Sebastian's motley crew and, later, his rather unwilling quarry. Since no top-secret, government-funded laboratory is complete without a guy with his feet on the multimillion-dollar console, quaffing Big Gulps and ogling Perfect 10, Greg Grunberg plays him here. Joey Slotnick plays the sardonic computer whiz ("I just hope we're not making a snuff film," how ironic), and Kim Dickens plays the spunky, midriff-bearing veterinarian, whose main function, as Sebastian's first surreptitious experiment, is to have her nipple tweaked. And then there's Mary Randle, the token black woman who is assigned the unenviable tasks of being humiliated on the toilet and swiftly garroted. Once these clowns agree to the radical mission of turning Sebastian invisible, act two is made up of them running video-game-style tests and -- with William Devane as a Pentagon supervisor -- wagging parental fingers at him.
Because these people are way smart and so forth, they have the ability to produce flesh-colored liquid rubber, which they pour over Sebastian's horny head to produce a reasonable facsimile of Kevin Bacon, bald, sans eyes. After a few days of sexually harassing Linda (who, oddly, never reports him or retreats), Twinkie the Kid (he's fond of Hostess cakes) decides to go get some on his own. In a world of women's locker rooms, Oval Offices and strip clubs, for crying out loud, Sebastian decides to pay an invisible visit to the hottie neighbor he's been spying on. And rape her.
The scene is never fully played out (knowing Verhoeven, it may have been filmed, then cut), but the whole enterprise makes the average adult anime seem cute and friendly. The woman is nothing but a victim here, stupidly opening the door to her pink, fluffy abode so Sebastian can watch her breast pop out of her robe -- standard procedure during grooming, we must assume -- and then brutally violate her. (One wonders if he actually removes all of the latex on his body.) It's not enough that he spends most of the movie striving to be a Shue-horn (until she snaps and decides to fry some Bacon); we're left with the distinct impression that the only purpose of his invisibility is to get randy and scope naked women. When Sebastian asks an invisible dog to tell him what it's like, it's easy to question whether he means not being seen ... or licking himself.
Another bummer about Hollow Man -- apart from watching Shue play action heroine, burping up lines like "We're gonna take him down!" with a straight face -- is that this technically astounding cart is latched in front of the dead horse of this miserable script. Not only are the transformation scenes shockingly realistic, the team led by effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson renders the outline of the invisible Sebastian in water, steam, foam and thermal vision, as his victims struggle to catch sight of his form. (We're forced to forget that they own spray-paint.) The digital artists also do terrific subtle work, making Shue's panties and Brolin's chest hair disappear.
But why bother? For science and lurid sexuality, we've already got plenty of Cronenberg in the can. And even if you're not in the mood for latter-day Chevy Chase, there are plenty of intriguing invisible-man movies on offer, especially the best one, with James Whale and Claude Rains giving us a classic in 1933. In retrospect -- especially in light of Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters -- it's pretty easy to see that movie for what it was: a metaphor for being a reviled and "unseen" outsider. It also had a character arc, whereas here we have Bacon (who complained recently to the press that he's got a board game but no Oscars -- be a little choosier, dude!) transforming from a cruel, arrogant jerk to a cruel, arrogant, invisible jerk. Perhaps the only way to appreciate Hollow Man is as a stark view of impotent male rage. At least the title fits.
Opens Aug. 4.