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Hollow Man: Special Edition

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Shue

Written by Andrew W. Marlowe
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

I have a friend who's one of those brilliant science fiction fans who can see though all manner of technical errors that mere mortals cannot. He's currently a forensic medicine student in Chicago. Here's what he wrote me recently:

"I was reading on The DVD Journal that Hollow Man is considered controversial. The controversy should be the abysmal depths of the public's scientific knowledge, which allows Paul Verhoeven to get away with a few howlers. First scene — an invisible cat devours a visible mouse. Mice (and most mammals) rely predominantly on smell to sense predators. Why would a mouse be fooled by an invisible cat? Second, after waking from his invisibility treatment, Kevin Bacon (sorry, Dr. Caine) says something like "Arrgh! Turn out the light!" after the light is off, and then "I can't close my eyes anymore — my eyelids are transparent." This naturally brings up, if light is passing through the transparent eyelids, what the hell is it hitting so that he can see anything? The light should be going right through his transparent retinas as well, leaving invisible people completely blind. Now, this could have been avoided if the writer, director, or someone hadn't wanted to show off how smart they were by bringing up this 'things you wouldn't think of about invisibility' narrative dumping. But our movie-going public doesn't wince when they hear explosions in a vacuum, so let them have Hollow Man. It's too bad really — Starship Troopers and Robocop were much smarter science fiction wise.

How does one defend a film against that kind of detailed, rational critique? The answer is — you can't. For the most part, Hollywood movies are sadly lacking in intellectual rigor. Thinkers think; movies move. The very medium seems to resist thought in its most commercial manifestation. Sure, some documentaries can grasp ideas and convey information. Take Michael Apted's marvelous Me and Isaac Newton. Not a lot of people saw it, but it's there to partake of if anyone wants to. The problem is that few people seem to want to, and that's a whole other subject, one that a writer such as Jonathan Rosenbaum is better equipped to handle. Suffice it to say, what Hollywood usually gives us — for a whole host of reasons that are partially commercial and partially the nature of a collaborative medium — is less likely to be Isaac and more likely to be Hollow Man

That said, Hollow Man has a couple of things to recommend it. For one thing, it is one of the few recent Hollywood movies in which a villain is the main character. For another, it is one of the few recent science fiction films that actually speculates about the possibilities and impact of science. And the special effects are damn good. But for the most part, the film is a misguided project, a movie that starts out as a nifty episode of The Outer Limits , but ends up as a ragged knock off of Alien, itself a knock of about a thousand other films.

Kevin Bacon stars in Hollow Man as Dr. Sebastian Caine, a scientist who is several degrees of separation from being a nice guy. Arrogant and conceited, Caine is leading a team of specialists who are under military contract to probe the possibility of invisibility, called phase shifting here. His ex-girlfriend Linda (Elizabeth Shue) is also on the team, and so is her current boyfriend Matthew (Josh Brolin), though Caine doesn't know they are dating. The bad doctor contrives to test the invisibility serum on himself, but then can't get back to his normal opaqueness. As is customary in such films (going back to James Whale's 1933 The Invisible Man), the condition of invisibility begins to affect Caine's mind — but he wasn't that much of a prince to begin with, so his later murderous and self-protective gestures really are just extensions of his personality. In the film's final act, Shue and Brolin battle with their increasingly wounded, transparent nemesis throughout the underground compound where he has trapped them.

Like a seductive tart at a party, Hollow Man illustrates what's best and worst about the new Hollywood. Showy, but with a lot of artificial ingredients in its essentially empty interior. Great special effects, but clumsy story development. A desire to appear smart without the capacity to impart intelligence. Acting that appears good, but which is really a catalog of television ticks drawn from a limited range of affectations. Excitement that leaves one bored.

Yet Paul Verhoeven attracts the viewer, even as he repels — there's always something vigorous and challenging and outrageous about his films. Less pretentious than Wolfgang Petersen, and less dense than Renny Harlin, Verhoeven is attractively ambitious and middlebrow at the same time, a Dutch Oliver Stone, and his films are fascinating to watch, even as one is appalled. But as my learned friend pointed out to me, there are fluctuations in his output. At best, Hollow Man is an efficient TV movie, compromised by its inability or unwillingness to pursue the full implications of its premise, and the infamous rape scene is the film's last gasp at trying to breathe the air of challenge; after that, it collapses into Sci-Fi Channel territory.

Nevertheless, for those who love the film, Columbia TriStar's Hollow Man: Special Edition is a treat. The disc comes with a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), and while it isn't the best-shot film in the world (the lighting is pedestrian, and the film tends toward the brown hues), the image is sharp. The DD 5.1 EX mix favors the thundering, music-heavy audio, with good use of all channels.

Additional supplements are probably as much as Verhoeven fans could ask for here. An audio commentary from Verhoeven, Bacon, and scenarist Andrew W. Marlowe pretty leaves the writer in the dust, as the director and his star dwell on the technical challenges of making the film. Even better is the intermittent commentary by Jerry Goldsmith on the isolated music track, featuring his score, which is one of his best in years.

Other features include three short "deleted" scenes, which are really longer versions of existing scenes. Unfortunately, Verhoeven sees fit to provide commentary to the rape scene by interrupting it with images of himself talking about his editing processes, thus muting that moment yet again. There's also a routine HBO "First Look" making-of featurette called "Hollow Man: Anatomy of a Thriller," which features some on-set activity. More interesting are the VFX "picture-in-picture" comparisons, which show three scenes in extended detail, revealing how each action sequence looked before the effects and after, with some of the original sound effects as well. The most substantial bit of behind-the-scenes material is the 15 "Fleshing Out The Hollow Man" featurettes, each about three minutes long. Annoyingly, they are laid out individually, rather than gathered together as one feature with a chapter menu. In any case, they provide a detailed look at how the film's superb special effects were achieved, and include storyboard-to-screen comparisons and other processes.

— D. K. Holm

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