Dave's Other Movie Log


Articles  Contents  Reviews  Guestbook

The Hollow Man*

The Hollow Man poses once more the question: Why do scientists want to tamper with secrets of nature they were never meant to know? But a better question might be: Why do movie studios want to keep recycling the desiccated remains of the Faust legend? Quite involuntarily, this unhappy movie, directed by Paul Verhoeven, exposes this weary premise for what it has become--a superannuated cliché--by carrying it to a latter day reductio ad absurdum. 

When Universal recycled The Mummy last year, it had the sense to move the story back into the 1930's, but Verhoeven and his collaborators--Andrew W. Marlowe takes responsibility for the screenplay, based upon a story by himself and Gary Scott Thompson--have planted the hoariest Mad Scientist saga out of the early sound era right in a present day setting. Stuart Gordon's highly entertaining Re-Animator (1985) had the sense to play this kind of material as campy parody, but The Hollow Man lacks the slightest trace of ironic self-regard.

Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) is a high powered, high-tech scientific super genius heading a top secret research project funded by the Pentagon. At the beginning of the film, Sebastian, who has discovered a compound that renders living organisms invisible but not the formula for reversing the process, makes one of those on the spur of the moment discoveries that afflict movie scientists in the middle of the night while trying out different combinations of molecules on his computer screen. Unlike Archimedes, however, Sebastian does not run out into the streets shouting "Eureka!" but dials up his ex-girlfriend and colleague Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue), who just happens to be sharing sleeping accommodations with another colleague, Sebastian's arch rival, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin). 

The Hollow Man is never a very likable motion picture. The picture opens with a sequence in which a laboratory mouse runs into a cage inhabited by an invisible predator which then splats the rodent on the bars of the cage. This grisly prelusive episode sets the tone for what is to come and things don't get any cheerier thereafter. For its first half or so, the movie limps along in the same vein as it shows how Sebastian becomes invisible and then discovers he is still unable to reverse the process.  But in the second half, when Sebastian discovers that Matthew has been carrying on an affair with Linda and runs amok like someone out of a bad revenge tragedy, the movie becomes progressively more violent as well as less dramatically coherent, since nothing that has gone on previously suggests that Sebastian is capable of this kind of intense passion.

Critics who had not the least interest in noting how infinitely inferior Gladiator is to Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross or The Perfect Storm is to John Ford's The Hurricane, did not hesitate to draw invidious comparisons between The Hollow Man and James Whale's The Invisible Man. In my article "The Whale Effect" I have written about the significance of The Invisible Man--arguably Whale's masterpiece--in the director's career, so I will set that question aside for the time being. But a cursory glance at the two movies should have pointed up one striking difference which has nothing to do with artistic questions--namely, the utterly dissimilar way scientists are depicted in the older and the more recent production. If there is any reason to talk about The Hollow Man at all, it is because of the way it documents the metamorphosis of the figure of the scientist in American movies since 1933, when The Invisible Man came out.

In The Invisible Man, just as in all other movies of the period, even ones like John Ford's Arrowsmith (1931) which do not deal with mad scientists, the scientist is always an oddball who lives in a rarefied world of his own from which the profane are excluded. Howard Hawks, no friend to science, presented the comic obverse of this figure in Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business, but even in the violently anti-scientific The Thing, the scientists are nonetheless an elite band, apparently dedicated to research and immune to the lusts of the flesh from which the regular guys in the Air Force suffer. 

In late variations on the Mad Scientist motif like Ken Russell's Altered States or David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly, the scientist is still recognizably an outsider. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), the hero of Altered States, is a sensitive soul who goes too far in exploring his inner limits, while Seth Bundle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly is a sympathetic searcher after truth who mistakes himself for the Übermensch. 

Not so in Verhoevan's monitory fable which subjects the stereotype of the scientist to a 180° rotation--its scientists are not savants with their heads in the clouds but butt-kickers. For old time's sake, The Hollow Man throws in a couple of certifiable nerds as members of the team under Sebastian's leadership. Nevertheless, Sebastian and Matthew themselves are a pair of studs who might have wandered into the picture out of a particularly uninspired action flick. The former is a type straight out of the pages of GQ who might be modelling for an article entitled "What Do Cool Dudes Wear to the Lab?"

Sebastian drives a Porsche and listens to hard rock on the way to work, while his second in command is a hunk guaranteed to set all the girls' hearts aflutter at a TGIF party. Although Sebastian's co-workers keep talking about what an oddball he is, the movie hardly supplies any evidence to support this assertion. In fact, Sebastian, such as the movie presents him, far more resembles a highly aggressive young executive trying to rise to the top in a big corporation than he does a scientist.

But this incongruity brings out one of The Hollow Man's most flagrant contradictions. Classic Mad Scientist movies from the past drew upon the image of the scientist as not only an oddball but also as a lone wolf carrying out experiments in the secrecy of his own laboratory, the belated descendent of one of Lord Byron's melancholy aristocratic heroes--traces of whom can also be spotted in the features of the first two literary detectives, Edgar Allan Poe's C.A. Dupin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. 

Yet major scientific research for decades already had been conducted in quite well organized research institutions, often attached to a famous university and under its academic surveillance. Needless to say, this situation renders highly implausible figures like Dr. Frankenstein or The Invisible Man's Jack Griffin, who can hardly be imagined carrying out their loony schemes with a pack of  assorted bureaucratic watchdogs breathing down their necks. Although Sebastian is supposedly in the employ of  the government, as a belated reincarnation of the Mad Scientist he is really a throwback to the past, an archaic relic from a genre that began to deliquesce the instant the rosy fingers of the dawning nuclear age first appeared on the horizon. 

The archetypal avatar of Faust in Western culture is, of course, Prometheus, but the secret hero of The Hollow Man is Narcissus. The Invisible Man's hero dreams of unlimited power, but The Hollow Man's only dreams of winning the Nobel Prize--no doubt in order to behold his reflected image on the cover of Time or to receive an invitation to appear on the Jay Leno or David Letterman television shows. If it is true, as Freud argued, that repressed desires often show up in dreams represented by their opposites, what the desire to become invisible in The Hollow Man primarily signifies is a monumental case of exhibitionism, an affliction perfectly coherent with what we see of Sebastian's behavior elsewhere in the movie. Moreover, the movie itself renders tangible this exhibitionism on the screen by a riot of special effects which constantly underline the presence of the otherwise absent Sebastian. 

If the title makes a pathetic gesture in the direction of High Culture by an allusion to T.S. Eliot's famous poem, it also tacitly conveys the idea of an inflatable being, doubtless capable of pumping himself up to the max with his own hot air. After all what is the root of Sebastian's narcissism if not the gnawing awareness of his real insignificance? Of the insignificance of most human beings in what Theodor Adorno called the "totally administrated world," a world which finds its prototypic exemplification in scientific research. Might it not have been a more interesting if less remunerative conceit to have made a movie in which a scientist became invisible--and nobody noticed the difference?

Me, Myself & Irene

Small  Time  Crooks

What Lies Beneath


E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net

Hit Counter