Verhoeven's Hollow Man is a mean, mechanical wad of nothingness.

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Hollow Man
Not a moment too soon: Bacon, disappearing.
Not a moment too soon: Bacon, disappearing.
There are many, many productive paths a bright, ambitious young fellow can pursue in America. He can, for instance, start a mediocre rock band and try to make music for beer commercials. He can also design a website to advertise websites about websites. But it takes a special kind of guy -- say, a guy like scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) -- to figure out his true raison d'être, namely, becoming invisible so he can violate and slaughter people without getting caught.

Ah, rape. Such a delightful theme to weave into a science fiction yarn, and who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) to exploit it? To his credit, Verhoeven is a crackerjack at taking his crowd-pleasing entertainments over the top, whether he's showing us packs of huge, monstrous insects stampeding toward Denise Richards's blinding teeth in Starship Troopers or romping through the wild medieval battles of Floris, created for Dutch television decades ago. But with Hollow Man, he only succeeds in sensationalizing an icky guy's icky megalomania. There are amazing effects aplenty to distract us from the rotten core of this by-the-numbers thriller, but ultimately it's an ugly, insipid rape fantasy, nothing more.

"Ten bucks says I nail her first!" proclaims Sebastian to his lieutenant and fellow researcher, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin), and although he's wielding a tranquilizer gun and referring to an escaped invisible gorilla named Isabel, his vacant machismo may just as well be focused on Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue), their plucky, no-nonsense peer. Tensions run high in the big, fancy lab they share in the foul bowels of Washington, D.C., possibly because they've stolen the whole shiny shebang from Professor Xavier of X-Men, possibly because it's lined with cages of screeching beasts who'd rather not be made invisible, but more than likely because, as the probationary Sebastian tactfully growls at Linda later in the movie, "I'm stuck in this shithole. You're at home fucking your boyfriend." Since that boyfriend is Matthew and Sebastian's a wee bit on the jealous and deranged side, you just know Bacon's gonna cut footloose. And arm loose. And ribcage loose.

Before we get to the irritatingly claustrophobic third act, in which Sebastian traps his hipster research team and uses his surprise bonus gift of superhuman strength to pick them off one by one, we have two other acts to wobble through. The first one is setup, of course, in which we get to groove on some eye-popping effects of Isabel, strapped to a table, forced by chemical injection to become visible again. We also get to know Sebastian, basically an unlikable and precocious brat whose ego is too big for anyone else to ride along in the surrogate penis of his Porsche.

Once we've thoroughly examined the expensive whirligigs and doohickies and listened to endless babble about "serial-irradiated proteins" and the like, we get to know the slacker geniuses who make up Sebastian's motley crew and, later, his rather unwilling quarry. Since no top secret, government-funded laboratory is complete without a guy with his feet on the multimillion dollar console, quaffing Big Gulps and ogling Perfect 10, Greg Grunberg plays him here. Joey Slotnick plays the sardonic computer whiz, and Kim Dickens plays the spunky, midriff-bearing veterinarian, whose main function, as Sebastian's first surreptitious experiment, is to have her nipple tweaked. Once these clowns agree to the radical mission of turning Sebastian invisible, act two is composed of them running video-game-style tests and wagging parental fingers at him.

Since these people are way smart and so forth, they have the ability to produce flesh-colored liquid rubber, which they pour over Sebastian's horny head to produce a reasonable facsimile of Kevin Bacon, bald, sans eyes. After a few days of sexually harassing Linda (who, oddly, never reports him or retreats), he decides to go get some on his own. In a world of women's locker rooms, Oval offices, and strip clubs, for crying out loud, Sebastian decides to pay an invisible visit to the hottie neighbor he's been spying on. And rape her.

The scene is never fully played out, but the whole enterprise makes the average adult anime seem cute and friendly. The woman is nothing but a victim here, opening the door to her pink, fluffy abode so Sebastian can watch her breast pop out of her robe -- standard procedure during grooming, we must assume -- and then brutally violate her.

Another bummer is that this technically astounding cart is latched in front of the dead horse of this miserable script. Not only are the transformation scenes shockingly realistic, the team led by effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson renders the outline of the invisible Sebastian in water, steam, foam, and thermal-vision. The digital artists also do terrific, subtle work, making Shue's panties and Brolin's chest hair disappear.

But why bother? For science and lurid sexuality, we've already got plenty of Cronenberg in the can. And even if you're not in the mood for latter-day Chevy Chase, there are plenty of intriguing, invisible man movies on offer -- especially the best one, with James Whale and Claude Rains giving us a classic in 1933. In retrospect, it's pretty easy to see that movie for what it was: a metaphor for being a reviled and "unseen" outsider. It also had a character arc, whereas here we have Bacon transforming from a cruel, arrogant jerk to an invisible, cruel, arrogant jerk. Perhaps the only way to appreciate Hollow Man is as a stark view of impotent male rage. At least the title fits.

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