"It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror."
Paul Verhoeven directs exploitative trash. Sometimes it's good exploitative trash: witness Robocop, Total Recall, and the film that made Sharon Stone a star and revolutionized the undergarment industry, Basic Instinct. Sometimes it's bad exploitative trash: witness Starship Troopers. Sometimes, to borrow a line from Mel Brooks, it rises below the label "exploitative trash": that would be Showgirls.
Given some spectacular visual wizardry, a pair of usually dependable leads in Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue, and an intriguing if overdone premise, what will Verhoeven come up with this time? One thing for certain: it'll be exploitative trash.
Facts of the Case
Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon, channeling the egomaniacal character Keifer Sutherland played opposite him in Flatliners) is an Einsteinian wunderkind on the trail of the discovery of the century: a biochemical method for making living things invisible by phase-shifting them out of synchronization with the visible universe. Sebastian and his core team of Pentagon-funded researchers, which includes his ex-lover Linda McKay (top-billed Elisabeth Shue, more or less reprising her sweet, naïve scientific genius from The Saint) and Linda's new top-secret boytoy Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin, Mimic, doing the usual one-note Josh Brolin thing), have actually had a fair bit of success in making an assortment of critters disappear. It's getting the beasts back without dissolving them into steaming heaps of protoplasm that's proving to be the real challenge, and that generates friction between Sebastian and the animals's caretaker, veterinarian Sarah Kennedy (Kim Dickens, Mercury Rising, Zero Effect). This last gruesome hurdle appears to have been jumped when a test subject, a gorilla named Isabelle (Tom Woodruff Jr., the title monster in Pumpkinhead) returns from the neighboring dimension of the space-time continuum alive and apparently intact.
The suits at the Defense Department, however, are beginning to wonder whether Sebastian and his crew mostly specialize in making millions of government greenbacks disappear. With the golden spigot about to be cranked shut, Sebastian decides it's time to make the bold leap into human testing, and he's elected himself the testee: "You don't make history by following the rules; you make it by seizing the moment," he tells a skeptical Linda and Matt. Strapped to an operating table, Sebastian injects himself with phosphorescent nuclear juice—"Any last words?" Matt asks; "Yeah—if I die, pretend I said something deep and clever," cracks Sebastian, obviously having seen the remainder of the script. In an impressively grisly visual effects sequence, Sebastian begins his agonizing journey into the unseen, becoming at various stages in the process a dead ringer for that clear plastic "Visible Man" model that was a toy store staple in the '60s and '70s, and a living ad for those cheesy "X-Ray Specs" once sold in the back pages of comic magazines everywhere.
Once phase-shifted out of view, Sebastian explores the myriad joys of invisibility. These include, among others, murder, sexual assault, animal cruelty, and frightening small children at traffic signals. It takes the other members of his team a while to figure this out—an astoundingly long while given the supposed average I.Q. in this group of biotech wizards—but eventually they reach the conclusion that Sebastian has let his god-complex run rampant with his newfound talents. (Apparently, he never had an Uncle Ben to teach him that with great power comes great responsibility.) His deletion of the security access codes that would enable them to escape from their underground lab/prison is the final clue that Sebastian's sanity has left the building, even if they can't.
What remains for the rest of the film is the age-old puzzle that has plagued military commanders for generations: how do you fight an enemy you can't see? (Did I mention that they can't figure a way to change him back to visibility again? Uh-oh.)
There's plenty of reason to suppose Hollow Man could have been a decent movie: mindblowing visual effects; a pair of talented and attractive leads in Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue (despite the fact that Shue's having a bad hair movie here); a director with a track record for mining, if not gold, at least brass, out of lesser genre material. But it seems as though at some point in the production cycle, Paul Verhoeven decided he really didn't have to make a decent movie. He therefore allows what was reasonably entertaining and suspenseful scare-fare during the first hour to ooze inexorably down into the bottomless pit of hackneyed tripe in the second hour.
Screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One) takes the viewer on an exhaustive tour of the Cinema Cliché Handbook. We get the Power-Mad Scientist; the Closet Relationship Hidden from the Jealous Ex-Boyfriend; Reckless Self-Experimentation Spurred by Imminent Loss of Funding; the Serial Killer Loose in an Inescapable Location (also known as Shooting Fish in a Barrel); the Hero(ine) Trapped in the Walk-In Freezer; the Let's-Split-Up-So-We-Can-Be-Picked-Off-Individually Line of Defense; the Jack-in-the-Box Killer; the Monster That Won't Die; the Climbing Escape…did I miss any? Oh yes: the Black Cast Member Dies First. It's almost as though Marlowe decided to check what seemed to be de rigeur in every other sci-fi/horror film made since the original Alien and follow the pattern unswervingly. (I guess he didn't understand that Scream was supposed to be a parody.)
The cast does what they can with a script that abandons them at sea. Kevin Bacon does a credible job with yet another of the oily, smug, arrogant characters he's been churning out since National Lampoon's Animal House. Elisabeth Shue makes a plucky attempt to appear heroic, but she's miscast here; when she has to do a few rather nasty things late in the film, we don't quite buy it coming from the babyfaced innocent from Cocktail and Adventures in Babysitting. (Before you fire off that email, I'm not saying a beautiful woman can't play tough. I'm only pointing out that Elisabeth Shue, a quality actress in other roles, has an underlying sweetness and gentility to her onscreen presence that makes her very wrong for this particular part.) Verhoeven would have been better served reversing his female stars, putting Kim Dickens, who has some grit to her, in the Linda Hamiltonesque lead role, and casting Shue as the empathetic veterinarian. But then, you don't get $95 million greenlighted if your lead actress is Kim Dickens. Josh Brolin is, well, Josh Brolin—I get parts because my dad's married to Streisand—but the other supporting players are all fine as they each await his or her moment of gory demise. William Devane, a solid character actor, phones in a thankless walk-on as Sebastian's one-time mentor. (Devane gets two scenes: in one, he snarls; in the other, he splashes.)
The effects crew, unlike the story department, earned every dollar of their paychecks here, creating some graphic transformation scenes as the bodies of first Isabelle the gorilla and then Sebastian Caine appear and disappear layer by layer: skin, then muscle, then circulatory system and internal organs, and finally skeleton. It's the kind of gut-clenching, over-the-top grotesquerie Verhoeven—and your average teenaged Fangoria fanboy—loves. [I sometimes wonder whether Verhoeven is really David Cronenberg on the odd days when Cronenberg (a) takes his medication and (b) decides he actually wants his films to make money.] The trifecta of the flesh-and-blood Kevin Bacon, computer animation melded over the greenscreened Bacon, and fullblown CGI aping Bacon's movements has to be seen more than once to be fully appreciated. There are moments in Sebastian's phase-shift, mostly the further away from live Kevin the transformation gets, when the animation isn't quite convincing—for the same reasons the photorealistic simulated humans in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within aren't 100% convincing—but it's pretty fantastic nonetheless. (Plus, it puts a whole other spin on the phrase "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.")
The anamorphic transfer on this Superbit Deluxe Edition could hardly be better. The image is razor-sharp and clean as the proverbial whistle throughout, free of print defects and conversion artifacts of any kind. Every muscle striation and capillary in the transformation sequences is perfectly delineated, and detail is noticeably crisp in every frame of the film. Ironically, the clarity of the Superbit format almost works against itself, as it reveals infrequent graininess in the source film that would probably be undetectable in a standard DVD. Color balance is vividly realistic without being overamped; shadows are suitably inky and deep. This is the first opportunity I've had to see one of Columbia's much-hyped Superbit releases up close and personal, and frankly, I'm pleasantly surprised.
As remarkable as the picture is, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally outstanding. Hollow Man's Superbit Edition is a worthy disc for showcasing your surround system, guaranteeing effective and active deployment of every speaker in your arsenal. The theme of the film relies on drawing the viewer into the illusion of an invisible presence at key moments, and this soundtrack excels in that regard; you'll feel total immersion in the environment. And when things blow up, they blow up with plenty of satisfying bottom end—turn the gain up high enough and you might peel a layer or two off your own face. The dialogue track, on the other hand, is nicely focused and isn't overwhelmed by the action. Jerry Goldsmith's creepy score shines as well (the isolated score on the first Hollow Man DVD release is, sadly, MIA this time). For the truly technocapable home theater buff, a DTS audio option is also available, though it's hard to imagine it being much better than the standard mix.
With all of the extra digital information crammed onto the film disc for the Superbit presentation, this Deluxe Edition collects all of the supplemental material on Disc Two. (Again unfortunately, an audio commentary featuring director Verhoeven, writer Marlowe, and star Bacon found on the original release is absent on this edition. As a commentary hound, I'm hoping Columbia TriStar figures out a way to resolve this dilemma for future Superbit titles.)
First up, we get HBO's "Making Of" featurette, "Anatomy of a Thriller." If you've seen any HBO "Making Of" short, you know what this is: fifteen minutes of promotion department puffery wrapped around a cornucopia of interview clips featuring the cast, director, producer and key production crew members. You won't learn a lot, and no one will say anything remotely critical of the film or anybody associated with it. But if you dig Entertainment Tonight, this will be right up your alley.
A trio of "VFX Picture-in-Picture Comparisons" offer more constructive use of your time. Three sequences from the film are presented in the original soundstage footage before post-production effects were incorporated—you'll see Kevin Bacon in his greenscreen masking bodysuit and makeup—with the finished scene shown in a separate window. Nifty.
Since good things come in threes, we're also treated to a triple dip of deleted scenes. "Was It a Dream?" is an alternate, somewhat restaged version of a sequence that appears in the final film. "Sebastian Attack" provides snippets of the full-length version of a rape scene that is (thankfully, in my opinion) foreshortened in the final cut—"It was too much too soon," says Verhoeven, ever the advocate of propriety and restraint, in an inserted interview clip. A third sequence, entitled "Sebastian on the Prowl," features some outside-the-laboratory hijinks by the invisible man that were excised due to pacing concerns; Verhoeven's commentary is interspersed here also.
The meat-and-potatoes content is a series of fifteen featurettes, globally titled "Fleshing Out the Hollow Man," totaling approximately 45 minutes. (For some reason, the fine folks at Columbia TriStar elected not to make it possible to view these continuously; you have to remote-click your way into each featurette.)
The first clip, "Paul Verhoeven: Hollywood's Mad Scientist" (6:45) features the stars and production staff of the film in interview nuggets talking about what it's like to work with Verhoeven. We see several bits of behind-the-scenes footage with Verhoeven interacting with his cast and crew; he's obviously an energetic, hands-on director, who's not afraid to get down-and-dirty on the set with his actors and demonstrate for them exactly what he wants them to do. An interesting glimpse into the working style of the auteur.
Here's an overview of the remaining short subjects (with approximate run times):
"The Invisibility Formula" (5:00): How do you shoot a movie in which your title character can't be seen for significant portions for the film? You'll find out here.
"The Muscle Man" (5:30): Visualizing the internal anatomy for the transformation sequences; figuring out the methodology for designing and showing what can't be seen under normal circumstances. The computer animators were challenged to make their virtual man look and move like the real Kevin Bacon. This is probably the most intriguing supplement in the section and if the graphic fadeout sequences are what drove you to pick up this disc, this is the featurette that contains what you most wanted to see.
"The Human Bubble" (3:00): The swimming pool sequence—showing the invisible man underwater. The effects shots here may remind you of the transparent pseudopod creatures in The Abyss. Frankly, I didn't think this sequence in the film was all that impressive or innovative, but it's interesting to see how they did it. (Watch for the big glass globe the effects guys toss in the water to simulate "Sebastian" diving in.)
"Thermal Imaging" (1:20): Seeing the world through infrared glasses. You've seen this sort of effect before, going all the way back to Predator.
"The Smoke Guy" (1:30): In several scenes in the film, the phase-shifted Sebastian is rendered partially visible using smoke. You'll learn in this clip how the visual effects people made that happen. (As with the underwater scene, I didn't think this effect worked terribly well, but your mileage may vary.)
"The Gorilla Suit" (1:30): Just what you wanted: an interview with the actor who played the test subject gorillas, Tom Woodruff Jr. Shirttail Woodruff relatives will no doubt love it.
"The Mask" (2:00): Molding and using the latex appliance Kevin Bacon wears in several scenes. Mildly interesting; again, you've seen this before.
"Flaming Sebastian" (5:20): The special effects team sets up and stages a sequence in which a character is set ablaze with a flamethrower. You'll have to hose down the pyromaniac in your household after this one.
"Elevator Finale" (3:00): Bringing together the combination of pyrotechnics and computer-generated effects that resulted in the spectacular climax. Pretty entertaining in and of itself; it's fun to watch Elisabeth Shue not wanting to kiss a guy with fluorescent lime-green pancake all over his face, even if that guy is the dreamy Mr. Bacon.
"Ape Reversion Storyboards" (2:00): A series of storyboards visualizing the gorilla's return from invisibility. Verhoeven supplies audio commentary, and the finished sequence appears for comparison in a separate window.
"The Underground Lab" (1:40): A discussion of set design. Unless you're a budding interior decorator, a prime moment to go refill that cream soda.
"Reversion Progressions" (1:00): An effects sequence demonstrating the layering of visual elements in the sequence where Sebastian partially reverts from his phase-shifted state. Digital Effects Supervisor Scott Stokdyk provides audio analysis.
"Invisibility Progressions" (2:30): Similar to the previous featurette, only this time using Sebastian's first transformation sequence as the source material, and with comments by Scott E. Anderson, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor.
"Digital Body Parts Montage" (1:30): A close-up look at the computer-generated viscera of Kevin Bacon. Yum.
Both the teaser and full theatrical trailer are also presented, along with static text filmographies for director Verhoeven and stars Bacon, Shue, and Brolin. (If you really want to dash out and rent more Josh Brolin films after seeing his mannequin-like performance in Hollow Man, you just weren't paying attention.)
I have one key gripe that applies to every item of added content on this second disc: Columbia TriStar felt compelled to add a copyright screen at the conclusion of each and every individual feature. By the time you've watched all the supplements, you've been assaulted with this legalese somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen times. I can appreciate the studio's interest in protecting its copyrighted material, but hokey smoke, Bullwinkle—one notice per disc would be plenty adequate, I would think. But then, I'm not a copyright lawyer, and I'm not banking a fee every time my words show up onscreen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One certain sign that a movie has derailed is the constant flashing into my brain of these odd little questions. For example: when Sebastian first becomes invisible, he complains loudly and repeatedly about the brightness of the lights in the lab. "His eyelids are transparent," posits Linda, meaning he can't shut out the light by closing his eyes. Okay, but riddle me this, Hollow Man: if his eyelids are transparent, it stands to reason that his retinas are also. So how is it that he can see at all?
Here's another noggin-scratcher. If you knew an invisible man was lurking about, and you owned thermal goggles that enabled you to see him, wouldn't you keep them on? Like, all the time? Beginning the second you suspected that he might be capable of antisocial behavior? I would. You would too. Nobody in this movie does. The answer to this one, of course, is: "If they wore the goggles all the time, Sebastian couldn't sneak up on them." (Same reason Gene Roddenberry didn't put seatbelts on the original Enterprise; if they had them, the actors couldn't be flung out of their chairs.) Sorry, Mr. Verhoeven, but that's just plain lazy filmmaking.
Last question: in the pool scene, isn't that Captain Picard's wife from Star Trek: The Next Generation in the upstairs window? You know, the one who was Denise Crosby's roommate in 48 HRS.? She's just singlehandedly lowered a whole bunch of people's "Bacon numbers" by at least a couple with only a two-second cameo.
I like my Bacon chewier than this. Hollow Man is a stunning visual extravaganza that ends up feeling (dare I say it?) hollow due to the weak and cliché-infested screenplay. It's worth seeing once, but not repeatedly, and by the time you've combed through the worthwhile extras, you'll have already seen more of Kevin's Bacon than you ever thought you wanted to see. If you really like this film, save a couple of bucks and pick up the non-Superbit DVD that includes the commentary and isolated score tracks.
Paul Verhoeven's latest film is guilty of being still more exploitative trash, closer to the equally hollow gorefest Starship Troopers than his better early work. Columbia TriStar is sentenced to five years in an underground lab with an invisible gorilla for continuing to perpetuate the hollow travesty that is Superbit. As Mr. Bacon once said, "These are the facts of the case…and they are undisputed." Court is in recess.
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• HBO Making Of Documentary Feature: Anatomy of a Thriller
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