H.G. Wells’ 1897 classic “The Invisible Man” has surely proven one of the most influential works in cinematic history. It’s spawned innumerable movies not only about transparent guys but gals and even animals, as well as several television series (including one that’s just premiered on the SciFi Network). But only one of these myriad visual offshoots has really been successful–James Whale’s brilliantly eccentric, maliciously humorous (and surprisingly faithful) 1933 Universal adaptation with Claude Rains It remains, some 67 years afters its appearance, both delightfully funny and creepily unsettling; even its effects are still startlingly effective.
This situation is certainly not altered by Paul Verhoeven’s aptly-titled high-tech modernization of Wells’ (and Whale’s) story, as shallow and vacuous a movie as ever existed. (Anyone who suggests that it actually tries to grapple with serious moral issues must be high on something; to see how that can be done in this genre, check out David Cronenberg’s marvelous 1986 reelling of “The Fly.”) Curiously, though Andrew W. Marlowe’s script follows both the novel and the earlier film slavishly in many respects, there’s no mention made of its indebtedness. Perhaps that’s all for the best, since its dismal failure to translate their motifs into contemporary terms shouldn’t be allowed to obscure their continued excellence.
In Marlowe’s pedestrian updating, the invisibility formula results from a Pentagon program led by brilliant but hotheaded Dr. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), whose research group includes his ex-lover Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue) and her current beau Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin). (Their relationship is, of course, kept secret from the not-so-good doctor.) There are four other members of the team, but as played by Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick and Mary Randle they’re such cardboard figures that they exist only to serve as dumb humorous relief at the beginning and as targets of Caine’s murderous assaults later on. As the plot kicks in, Caine decides to test the formula on himself without the approval of the army brass but with the connivance of Linda and Matt–hardly a surprise, given that he’s one cocky SOB. It works, but the process proves irreversible; and the enforced invisibility feeds Sebastian’s nasty, power-hungry persona. Before long he’s escaping from the research compound to do dastardly deeds–an off-the-cuff rape filmed POV, the swimming-pool murder of a scientist who’s a danger to him–and it should come as no surprise that he uses his condition to spy on his old flame and the handsome stiff she’s taken up with. All of this is pretty much in line with the contours of the screenplay that R.C.Sherriff did for Whale’s 1933 feature (with an uncredited assist, it’s been reported, by the remarkable Preston Sturges); but although the picture delivers an occasional effective jolt in these early stages, as a whole it doesn’t have either the disturbing power or the macabre humor that the earlier flick possessed in spades, nor does Verhoeven exhibit the same exuberance and verve that Whale brought to the party.
In any event, Marlowe’s treatment turns, at about the halfway point, into a different flick, a cat-and-mouse pursuit of the other team members by Caine in their underground facility, a maze of tunnels, labs, closets, and–as it turns out–refrigerated cubicles. Verhoeven tries to inject some of his skill for quick cuts and abrupt shocks into this torturously drawn-out portion of the picture, but he fails miserably. As bodies pile up and one narrow escape follows another, “Hollow Man” is transformed into a low-rent imitation of “Alien,” claustrophobic and oddly static in spite of all the running around. So absurd do some of the “gotcha” moments become that they’re unintentionally funny, iterations of half-remembered bits from old slasher movies (come to think of it, in the partially-embodied state he eventually assumes, Bacon’s Caine even looks a bit like Freddy Krueger). Even the brooding ostinatos characteristic of Jerry Goldsmith’s music can’t pump any excitement into this final portion of the picture, although his score is moodily effective during the first hour or so.
The three leads can’t do much in the face of the script deficiencies, either. Bacon, who’s become an increasingly vital screen presence recently in pictures like “Wild Things” and “Stir of Echoes,” brings some of his customary intensity to the early stages of the story, but after he literally evaporates, he’s reduced to stomping about either incorporeally or wearing an inexpressive latex mask, and his reedy tenor alone–unlike the dulcet baritone of Rains–isn’t really enough on its own. Shue, who’s given top billing, is apparently supposed to be a sort of earthbound version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley here–the strong-willed gal who’s capable of facing off against any man, even an invisible one–but she’s strangely nondescript in the role. Brolin, who can give interesting performances with the right material, is reduced to playing a hunkish cipher; one certainly can’t think much of Shue’s Linda McKay if she’s enamoured of a guy who seems a pretty face but nothing more. The supporting players are stranded in stock roles that make them seem like pieces of disposable furniture rather than actual human beings. Even William Devane, whose current turn as the dyspeptic flight controller in “Space Cowboys” is so gruffly amusing, seems lost as the leader of the Pentagon board overseeing Caine’s project; his “acting” is pretty much reduced to lighting, and playing around with, his pipe–a sure sign of desperation in characterization.
One does have to admit that a few of the effects in “Hollow Man” are fairly nifty. The re-materialization of an ape, as well as Bacon’s de-materialization, are done very spiffily, even though some of the innards have a plastic look and feel to them. But this is another instance in which technical proficiency doesn’t much matter when the script, acting and direction leave so much to be desired. By the time that the picture lurches to its predictable finish, viewers are likely to have adopted as their description of “Hollow Man” the phrase that becomes Linda McKay’s mantra as she stumbles from one catastrophe to another in the final thirty minutes of the film–“Oh s**t,” she says with alarming regularity. It’s a safe bet that this expensive turkey will disappear from theatres more quickly than its protagonist fades into nothingness on the operating table in reel three.