“No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.”
These words are not from a film, but from the second book of Plato’s Republic, as Socrates’ interlocutor Glaucon argues that even the most just of men would be corrupted by the powers of invisibility conferred by the mythical Ring of Gyges. Naturally, Socrates disagrees – but the moral quandary that their discussion poses certainly informed H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man, which replaced the Ring of Gyges with a scientific formula for invisibility. By the time Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, just the latest in a long series of films adapting Wells’ novel, came along in 2000, the scientific achievement of invisibility had been upgraded as “a very specific and challenging task: to successfully phase-shift a human being out of quantum sync with the visible universe and return him safely with no aftereffects”. Yet for all this scientific updating of the premise, in the film’s antihero Dr Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) we see the same old ethical struggle.
Sebastian is heading a secret research programme to develop a reversible invisibility serum for the military. Importantly, the first act of the film introduces us to Sebastian before he tests the serum on himself, so that we can already see – before we can no longer see – the genius molecular biologist scientist in all his potential for aberrant behaviour. In the opening scene in his apartment, after he once again fails to reconfigure cells on a computer model (‘unstable’ reads the text on his screen, referring as much to Sebastian as to his work), he distracts himself by spying on a woman undressing in the apartment opposite. An egotistical alpha male who drives a flashy Porsche, blithely flouts rules, has a wandering eye, shows little humanity towards his animal test subjects, and thinks he is not just god’s gift but – expressly, and only half-jokingly – ‘god’ himself, Sebastian is, as his Pentagon handler Howard Kramer (William Devane) recognises, ‘different’. Sebastian’s work colleague Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue) stopped going out with him because she could see that Sebastian only had room in his life for Sebastian, and that he wasn’t ever really there. “The concept of Sebastian”, as Linda tells her new lover – also a colleague – Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin), “is much more appealing than Sebastian himself.”
Pretty soon Sebastian will become his own concept – a signified without a signifier, in the absence of his actual visible presence. Yet if Sebastian turns bad once he becomes invisible and, now that he no longer has to – or even can – look himself in the mirror, ends up doing all the things that Plato’s Glaucon catalogues, Hollow Man will repeatedly pose the question of whether Sebastian’s animalistic reversion is down to a damaging side-effect of his experimental serum, or to his own nature, now left unrestrained by any sense of public shame or compunction. “Who’s gonna know?”, as Sebastian tells himself before sneaking into the apartment opposite and raping his neighbour. This terrifying assault positions its unseen assailant as the invisible antagonist of Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982), while his later serial attacks on his colleagues, trapped with him in the corridors of their underground laboratory, make him like the face-raping, kill-happy extra-terrestrial lurker in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Sebastian has unleashed a monster that was, we suspect, always there within him, hidden in plain sight.
If invisibility ought, by definition, to be an entirely un-cinematic quality, Hollow Man finds ever more ingenious ways of visualising it through extraordinary special effects, as Sebastian’s outline can be discerned by the sensor pads hanging from him, by the clothes or latex mask that he wears around his empty frame, by the thermal imaging cameras used in the lab, or by the water, smoke and blood that come into contact with him, all showing the contours of his absent presence and conjuring him like a ghost.
Verhoeven has subsequently gone on record saying that Hollow Man feels more like an anonymous corporate product than his own film. Nonetheless, there is something about the film’s concern with sexual matters (not just Sebastian’s creepy lecherousness and unwelcome advances, but the overtly erotic play between Linda and Matt, always driven by Linda) that seems all Verhoeven’s – as does the way the director keeps uncomfortably aligning the invisible cinema-goer’s intrinsic voyeurism with Sebastian’s own, showing us to what depths of depravity the male gaze can lead. Sebastian is initially presented as a pioneering, maverick, cocky male figure of identification/aspiration – familiar from, and celebrated by, any number of Hollywood movies. In the end, Sebastian has been reconfigured precisely by those qualities as the film’s unambiguous villain. Verhoeven, ever the subversive filmmaker, leaves it up to us at which point we part company with this type of the great American hero.
“You think Sebastian’s bad,” observes technician Frank (Joey Slotnick) in Hollow Man. “Imagine what the world’s gonna be like once the military gets their hands on this.”
Claudio Faeh’s Hollow Man II, made six years later, does imagine something like this.Although ill received by critics, Hollow Man performed well at the box office, making a sequel inevitable. Faeh’s follow-up is obviously a lower-budget affair, with visual effects that are less impressive (if still functional), and the flat look of something made for television (in fact it was released direct to video). Yet its plotting is drawn from the original draft of Verhoeven’s film (Verhoeven serves as executive producer here), and it takes a balls-to-the-wall approach to narrative as, from the outset, it launches us in medias res with a drunk scientist coming under vicious attack at a party from an unseen assailant. It also fully embraces the notion of invisibility as a covert weapon.
Investigating police detectives Frank Turner (Peter Facinelli) and Lisa Martinez (Sarah Deakins) are taken off the puzzling case by the military, but reassigned to protect the victim’s former colleague Dr Maggie Dalton (Laure Regan) in her own home. The house is invaded by an invisible figure, and Frank and Maggie find themselves on the run not just from the violent, vengeful, invisible war veteran Michael Griffin (Christian Slater) – named for the antagonist of Wells’ original novel – who is seeking a cure for the terminal side-effects of his condition, but also from a cadre of government conspirators desperate to cover up what they have done to Michael – and why.
What follows is like James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), only with an invisible assassin substituted for a time-travel cyborg. There’s a fugitive couple, an implacable, murderous pursuer, and even an infiltration of a police station’s supposedly safe interiors – and mobility and action propel everything. Meanwhile, there are attempts at up-to-the-minute contemporariness that today, paradoxically, seem charming precisely for their datedness – like the young couple making a sex tape who accidentally capture Michael’s spectral presence on their camera’s night vision, in a bizarre merger of the (explicitly referenced) 1 Night in Paris (2004) and then-voguish found-footage horror.
Ultimately, we are left with the same question raised by Plato in The Republic. The unjust would exploit powers of invisibility to facilitate their unjust ends – but what might the just do with them?
© Anton Bitel