They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
Paul Verhoeven is a beloved favorite for genre enthusiasts. The Dutch director has a unique ability to fuse blood-soaked, over-the-top violence with explicit sexual content that on the surface feels like your basic trash cinema, but the slightest peak under the curtain will often reveal biting satire. And his social jabs are just as in-your-face, if not more so, than the graphic assault on display.
Not all movies can be a RoboCop or Starship Troopers, however. Sometimes you get a Hollow Man.
In 2000, Verhoeven took the reigns on the Andrew W. Marlowe penned script about a group of scientists that attempt to crack the code of invisibility only to be met with disastrous results. Armed with an H.G. Wells-inspired story, a young cast of Hollywood stars – Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth Shue, and Josh Brolin – and an uber-talented effects crew the makings of a Verhoeven classic were there. Were these elements able to combine for positive results, or did they cause an explosion in the lab?
With Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, based off the same Wells’ novel, nearing a release, we look back at the critical response to Hollow Man.
“Hollow Man deserves a niche in the Underachievement Hall of Fame,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 2-star review, where he compared the movie negatively to Michael Keaton’s Jack Frost. Ebert didn’t hate the film but felt disappointed that it decided to devolve into a mindless slasher rather than say or do anything interesting. Ultimately, Ebert expected more from a director that had displayed “imagination and wit” on past films.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott was too let down by a concept that should have churned out an interesting movie but instead delivered “a labored, implausible piece of action-movie hack work.” Perhaps most damming of all, Scott wrote that Hollow Man “even lacks the howling shamelessness that has turned Showgirls into a cult favorite among connoisseurs of guilty video pleasure.”
In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman carried on the theme of missed opportunity. Gleiberman’s biggest complaint is that the film “sets up and then fails to deliver lavish satirical ways of having fun with invisibility.” Confused by the film’s lack of deeper meaning, Gleiberman questioned who the titular hollow man is. Is it the mad scientist that turns himself invisible and goes on a killing spree, or is it Verhoeven, a director “who seems to have reduced filmmaking to a matter of sheer molten energy and special effects, with any suggestive levels of imagination blocked out?”
Writing for the Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov compared the movie to the mind of a 15-year-old boy. Savlov felt that even when the film hinted at going somewhere, it was “weighed down by an increasingly juvenile sense of humor that makes the whole shebang that much more difficult to take seriously.” Like others, Savlov struggled to comprehend how this was from the same director that gave us titles like The Fourth Man, ultimately deciding this to be nothing more than a “boisterous, gooey miscue.”
The script’s failures may have absorbed the brunt of the film’s criticism, but the acting wasn’t let off the hook. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post described it as “lousy” and “really appalling,” focusing on the performance of Shue.
J. Hoberman of The Village Voice referred to Brolin as the film’s resident pretty boy, saying, “Verhoeven has never met a bad actor he couldn’t use.” A bit harsh, but there is no denying Brolin’s prettiness.
Hollow Man wasn’t entirely panned. Serena Donadoni of the Detroit Metro Times enjoyed the film’s big-budget B-movie premise, stating that “Verhoeven pumps up the action in several over-the-top sequences.”
The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Harrison was also a fan, highlighting that he was impressed by the acting. “Bacon is terrifically venal,” Harrison wrote. “He gives the kind of performance that people would praise as courageous if he were Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford.” He was arguably more impressed by Shue, comparing her command to that of Wonder Woman. At the film’s start, Shue is more of a secondary character to Bacon. Still, by the time the final act kicks into gear, she forces her way to the forefront, leaving Harrison to conclude, “we’d watch her even if Bacon weren’t invisible.”
All critics were able to agree on one thing – Hollow Man’s special effects are stunning.
“The transformation scenes, featuring Sebastian as well as the lab’s prize gorilla, are shivery and spectacular,” Gleiberman wrote.
Ebert called the film’s special effects “astonishing,” and was particularly smitten with the clever tactics the film took to make the invisible visible once more. “They spray him with firefighting chemicals, turn on the sprinkler system, splash blood around.”
“The special effects here really are special,” Harrison wrote as he described an early scene in the film in which an invisible gorilla is made visible again, and we see it happen right before our eyes.
The overwhelming consensus from its release is that Hollow Man is at best an enjoyable enough B-movie with dazzling special effects, but one that fails to capitalize on its great premise. Instead of offering up the strong social commentary that Verhoeven is known for, the film blends in with other paint-by-the-numbers horror films released in the late ’90s, early 2000s. At the end of the day, it doesn’t film like a Paul Verhoeven film.
In 2013, Verhoeven let it be known he agreed with this position. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the director bemoaned ever making the movie. “I decided after Hollow Man, this is a movie, the first movie that I made that I thought I should not have made,” he said in the interview. “It made money and this and that, but it really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that. I don’t think many people could have made Robocop that way or either Starship Troopers. But Hollow Man, I thought there might have been 20 directors in Hollywood who could have done that. I felt depressed with myself after 2002.”
As a fan of the film, I can’t say I don’t agree. I enjoy its B-movie nature, but it’s flawed and lacks the director’s signature flare. Deep dives into loneliness and/or voyeurism seemed like the obvious options, and they were right there on the table, yet the film chose to tiptoe around then. That being said, Hollow Man may have hit the nail on the head in a way we just didn’t realize.
In Scott’s New York Times review, he touches base on how mad scientists have greatly changed in films over the years. Gone are the days of lab coats, whacky hair, and glasses. Now they’re hip, good-looking young people. “Sebastian drives a sleek silver Porsche and wears a half-length black leather coat that would make Shaft jealous,” Scott wrote. “Your tax dollars at work, folks.”
And maybe that’s it. Perhaps Hollow Man is a film about how the government wastes our tax dollars. And it was so on-the-nose that critics didn’t even realize it.