The turn of a new century and an exciting era for filmmaking would soon sour. It is the reaction to adaptation and the appeal of seeing similar stories time and time again that weakens film, but some can take tried and tested source material to new areas and modern times. Paul Verhoeven applied that with this loose adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. He does not riff on the set designs or the moral impact that could come from a man invisible to the naked eye but engages with the twisted, devolving mind of a man turned invisible out of choice and struggling to turn back.
Kevin Bacon is a strong draw as Sebastian Caine, a man so driven by his passion for science that, inevitably, it becomes his undoing. A strong lead performance steers Hollow Man well. There are a few bumps in the road for Caine’s trajectory from ambitious and bold scientist to creepy, invisible man tortured by the fact he cannot close his eyes, but Verhoeven is in a constant struggle to balance the tortured science-fiction with something more approachable and lighter. A love triangle blossoms not out of choice but due to a lack thereof. Verhoeven must throw a spanner in the works somewhere and the easiest way to do that is to strain the relationship between Caine, Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue) and Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin). Delicately done, the dynamic is more a fault of Caine and his dedication to science than his slip into madness. They are the problems that haunted this trio before a horrific accident turned a scientist invisible and mad.
Verhoeven is keen to demonstrate that rather frequently. It is rather telling that Hollow Man takes a long while to fully commit to Caine’s devolution. He may be a stunningly reprehensible and cocky individual, but it is not until the real acts of malicious intent begin that the character grows as more than a moral placeholder for the obvious “what would you do if you were invisible?” question. That is an inevitability that Verhoeven is smart enough to include and smarter still to not dwell on. He and this ensemble have no time for that. Instead, the focus is given to the stellar visuals that bring a shlock and gore element to this. The early days of CGI were firmly rooted with Jurassic Park and The Matrix providing heavy-hitting examples of just how varied its use could be. For Hollow Man, it takes that down a notch and incorporates it into the story with a keen desire to let it highlight the physical props.
A latex suit to keep an eye on Caine when he is invisible is preceded by a stunning and horrific display of his painful turn to nothingness. Thankfully, Verhoeven does not craft a feature of nothingness but one of incredibly risky choices. Making the hotshot star of the show invisible or unrecognisable for the majority of the running time moves Bacon away from his Footloose typecast and gives him a role that feels both chilling and exciting. These are strong performances embedded in a feature that gives weight to the darker sides of an H.G. Wells classic. It does not try to pull the rug from under the initial adaptations of the book, nor does it show any love for what they did. Hollow Man plays fast and loose with the work it bases itself on, giving Verhoeven an inspiringly strong range of tricks to play around with.