HOLLOW MAN

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Andrew Marlowe

With Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue and Josh Brolin

***



In retrospect, Paul Verhoeven has suddenly become respectable with arty critics: both Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin have recently recanted their initial contempt for SHOWGIRLS. The satire underlying Verhoeven's sleaze connoisseurship  became easier to see as his films age, for me as much as Rosenbaum  and Martin. The former's self-righteous remarks bemoaning the bloodthirstiness of younger critics at a HOLLOW MAN press screening wound up drawing fire from  his Chicago colleague Scott Tobias, but while Tobias' anger is justified, Rosenbaum is still onto something: audience reaction is key to how one perceives Verhoeven's films.  I saw STARSHIP TROOPERS with an audience that acted like brain-dead thugs, cheering every single act of violence (and even the final revelation that the film we've just been watching is a piece of fascist propaganda), and when I asked someone to cease his MST3K-style running commentary, he threatened to punch me. Under these circumstances, I couldn't help concluding that its Brechtian subversiveness has been highly overrated.

Had Verhoeven  made his points any more obvious, I might be complaining about preachiness instead, and   I'm almost certain that I would like STARSHIP TROOPERS more if I saw it again on video or with a more civilized audience. Although BASIC INSTINCT was a guilty pleasure, I couldn't decide whether it was an over-the-top dig at male fears of female sexuality, as some feminist defenders have suggested, or an indulgence of them. The protests from gay and lesbian organizations  completely overlooked the possibility of the former reading, and I might have missed it too if I didn't see it with an audience consisting largely of gay men who cheered on Sharon Stone's diva fatale  and hissed at Michael Douglas'  "hero".

The hollow man (in both senses of the word), Sebastian Caine (Bacon), is part of a team of scientists, including his ex-girlfriend Linda (Shue) and her current boyfriend Matt (Brolin), hired by the Pentagon to investigate the possibility of making animals and people invisible. Unbeknownst to his bosses, Caine has  successfully completed with the project. Lying to his co-workers that he's been given the go-ahead to experiment on himself, he decides to test  the drug's effectiveness. Discovering that it can make him invisible, he uses his power to enact his rape and revenge fantasies.

Perhaps as a response to the accusations of misogyny generated by BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS, HOLLOW MAN is practically PC by Verhoeven standards. In place of SHOWGIRLS' gratuitous, highly explicit rape scene, he cuts away from sexual assault before anything much happens. Although the film begins with a rat's gory death, Caine's later killing of a dog is more implied than shown. The scientist comes across as a creep from the very beginning, with his initial peeping at a sexy neighbor  a clear sign of how he'll abuse power once he gets it. However,  it's hardly an accident that he's more charismatic than  putative heroes Linda and Matt,  and that as nasty as his behavior gets, he's never completely demonized. While Bacon makes a surprisingly compelling villain, Shue and Brolin look like bland mannequins. Caine is  hardly a sympathetic figure, yet he's far easier to identify with than  his  victims. An ambiguous dream sequence suggests  that even  Linda may not be able to keep from identifying with him and that the sexual charge of invisibility isn't only a male drive.  Although the satirical overtones of STARSHIP TROOPERS are almost entirely absent, the general pessimism about human nature is hard to miss.

It's become a commonplace to say (or complain) that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are basically blown-up 60s B-movies, but the cliché is  certainly true of HOLLOW MAN. In this case, it's exactly what's likable about it.  Bacon and Verhoeven re-infuse their stock material with gusto and bite. One only has to turn to X-MEN to see how ugly CGI abuse can get, but Verhoeven deploys computer effects with real imagination. Realizing their essential cheesiness, he counteracts it by using them to evoke flesh, blood and organs (not to mention depicting explicit cruelty to animals without upsetting PETA.) The  viscera-filled cavity that becomes the invisible Caine's body hardly looks realistic. Instead,  it 's something rarer and better: a genuinely uncanny image.

For its first 90 minutes, HOLLOW MAN is an extremely well-executed genre exercise, but the final half hour  takes a real nosedive. Borrowing a page from ALIEN and practically every slasher movie ever made, Marlowe has the invisible Caine chase the other scientists around a locked lab. Worse, he has also them wander around alone even though they know they're in a confined space with a man trying to kill them. When  Linda and Matt finally do successfully fight back against Caine, this only sets the stage for a painfully extended sequence of serial resurrections.

Despite the reflexive subtext, HOLLOW MAN's surface is what engaged me most about it.  In fact, I think it may be more successful than STARSHIP TROOPERS precisely because it's less ambitious (since its failures are thus less frustrating.). Yet there's still something troubling about it, as with most of Verhoeven's work. Its surface leering and wallowing in gore doesn't bother me;  its underlying contempt for the audience does. When I saw BASIC INSTINCT, I should have realized that Verhoeven was laughing along with me, but his American films' appeal to intellectuals lies precisely on the fact that most of their audience doesn't get the joke, thereby becoming the joke. STARSHIP TROOPERS is as close as Hollywood has come Michael Haneke's confrontational FUNNY GAMES, which repeatedly equates the audience with a pair of sadistic tortures and killers, and unlike that film, it at least aims for something more difficult than making arthouse audiences feel guilty. (For all Haneke's formal mastery, his moralistic disavowal of his own  sadism, which he displaces onto spectators and other filmmakers, is ludicrous.)  Even so, the complexity of Verhoeven's work stems from its own elitist "funny games." What's valuable about it is his willingness to pull the rug out of from under our baser tendencies even as he panders to them, and the audience with whom I saw STARSHIP TROOPERS certainly deserved his contempt. Nevertheless, SOLDIER OF ORANGE, a surprisingly sober 1979 tribute to the Dutch Resistance during World War II, is the only Verhoeven film I've seen that doesn't ultimately boil down to an elaborate prank. If he gets to make his dream project, a biography of Jesus, I can only imagine  what he'll do faced with a wholly admirable character.