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Straight to Cinemax

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Most movies radiate the belief that they belong on the big screen. Others, especially certain low-budget or genre items, make sense only in the nether reaches of late-night or cable television. But there's another breed that occupies a twilight zone between the two: the kind of movie that, thanks to some mysterious essence scientists have yet to decode, seems biologically connected to premium-channel cable.

Ideally, this movie is not seen at home or in the company of other people. You run into it when you're for some reason stuck in Willy Lomansville for a night or two. You're too tired to read or go out (oh yeah, you remember: there's nowhere to go), so you turn on the television to the place where there are no commercials. A movie has just started, a movie you wouldn't even think of going to see in a theater or of renting. But there it is. You gape at it for a few minutes, thinking this is lame, maybe I should check out that Gideon's Bible. You keep watching, though. You realize that the movie's look is polished, it has some interesting second-level stars and even a few ideas bouncing around. Mainly because your brain's at low ebb, you curl up and think, this isn't so bad. And in the context, it isn't.

I offer this mainly as a route toward explaining why Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man didn't make me angry. Perhaps it's just that we're so far along in the summer that most of the disgust and ire the season naturally generates are largely spent. But beyond that, Hollow Man doesn't broadcast the self-importance of, say, X-Men or The Perfect Storm, crummy movies that on some level want to be taken seriously. Aside from its capital-intensive veneer, Verhoeven's sci-fi thriller looks like it might've been made to go straight to HBO or Cinemax.

You will have gathered that it has nothing to do with T.S. Eliot. Or, for that matter, Ralph Ellison. Though the title clearly called for was The Invisible Man, that was presumably off-limits, and Hollow Man makes precious little sense (except metaphorically: I'll get to that). While H.G. Wells receives no credit, the premise that he supplied James Whale's 1933 The Invisible Man--mad scientist makes himself invisible, wreaks havoc--is, in fact, the same one operative here.

Except that we're no longer in the innocent English countryside. The film's Prometheus, Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), lives and works in Washington, D.C., where his research into invisibility serves the Pentagon. When the story opens, he's just made a crucial discovery but is equally interested to find out who's sharing the bed of his ex-girlfriend, Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue), who happens to be his chief lieutenant. She, in turn, is anxious that he not find out she's sleeping with their coworker Matt (Josh Brolin). Does she suspect Sebastian might turn into a homicidal maniac if provoked by jealousy (or, given the chance, to be made invisible)? The hint is planted at this point, but for the first act Sebastian remains the nominal protagonist--a little hyper and controlling, perhaps, but no monster.

Hollow Man has all the hallmarks of a film that was made due to the availability of certain special-effects technologies, a cart-before-the-horse approach to filmmaking that's perhaps no screwier than many distortions of creative will in Hollywood. The movie's first half-hour forms a build-up to the first major display of that F/X wizardry, which comes when Sebastian and his team test their new serum on an ape. Strapped to an operating table in the scientists' underground bunker, the beast is injected with a colored liquid that gradually renders all of his internal veins and organs visible while leaving his skin transparent. The effect, in other words, is exactly like those plastic "Invisible Man" statuettes used to teach biology in school--which is appropriate enough, since the movie itself recalls other stereotypical diversions of childhood.

You know what's coming from the first, and after a few more predictable plot twists, it does. Sebastian decides to test the invisibility serum himself. His colleagues are instructed to keep him confined to the bunker and monitor his every move (they see him by using heat-detecting cameras and goggles), but they don't count on the personality changes that accompany his disappearance from the realm of the visible. Does the serum make him nuts, or is it the power that comes with invisibility? That question is posed by the movie, and the answer is: Who cares? What counts is the mayhem that ensues.

To feign visibility in order to return to the above-ground world, Sebastian dons clothes and puts on a rubbery mask that has holes for his mouth and eyes. Without sunglasses he does indeed look like a hollow man, although of course he's still as flesh-and-blood as anyone else. But it's when he's au naturel, i.e. completely invisible, that he wreaks the most havoc, and the film really gets to show off its special effects.

Naked, Sebastian can only be seen when he's defined by some sort of gas (steam, say) or liquid (water, blood). Utilizing the sort of F/X technology that was strikingly novel at the time of Terminator 2, the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of the secondary characters' desperate efforts to render Sebastian visible. This happens in the tale's final act, when, à la Alien, he pursues his coworkers through the now sealed-off bunker, murdering them one by one.

It's precisely because this is all so unoriginal that it verges on appealing. A mad scientist who lays waste to the innocent human world with his nutty forbidden knowledge--didn't I see at least 50 movies like this on late-night TV when I was a kid? At least. Hollow Man takes itself seriously enough to know it's supposed to deliver the same kind of thrills, but not so seriously as to think that by doing so it's reinventing the genre.

What's more, Verhoeven is undeniably skillful at this kind of hi-tech, tongue-halfway-in-cheek action romp. Hollow Man is the fourth large-scale sci-fi movie he's made since moving from Holland to Hollywood in the mid-80s, following RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. All of those films have elements of a foreigner's satiric critique of American culture, and if Hollow Man is perhaps the least ingenious and thought-provoking in this regard, it's still full of Verhoeven's stylistic energy, his mix of manic conviction and unapologetic, almost aggressive cheesiness.

So, yes, it's as fun to watch as any movie that contains heaps of bad dialogue (Andrew M. Marlowe's screenplay doesn't stint on the clichés) and that ends with a giant fireball can be. But is fun all there is to movies? Verhoeven's other American films, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, hint that his work is driven not just by a mania for perfection and an underlying cynicism over the value of the movies on which that mania is expended, but also by a certain guilt over both the work and the cynicism. As an autocritique, one not unknown to European auteurs who "go Hollywood" (see Wim Wenders' The State of Things), this line of thinking is corrosive enough to leave any filmmaker feeling like, well, a hollow man.

Maybe the title isn't entirely misguided. And maybe there's a hint of Eliot to the enterprise, after all. But if Hollow Man can be seen as a confessional self-portrait, it also cancels out that implication with the joke that its subject, in reality, can't be seen.

Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, a comedy-drama about four geriatric flyboys returning to outer space, sounded like it might turn out to be Grumpy Old Astronauts. Thankfully, it's more akin to a newspaper headline that's used within the film--The Ripe Stuff. In other words, this is no mere sitcom constructed of jokes about flatulence and pacemakers. As his oeuvre might suggest, Eastwood has a serious interest in the cowboy aspects of test-piloting and manned space flight; when he tackles the subject in a film, it's no surprise that dignity and a certain nostalgia offset the jokes.

The tale's premise is that a mysterious old Russian spacecraft threatens to fall to Earth with devastating results unless its control system is repaired under supervision of the veteran American astronaut who created it--the role Eastwood awards himself. He insists on doing the work in outer space, accompanied by three former partners from the space program. Tommy Lee Jones (who's out of place chronologically: he looks about 15 years younger than his cohorts) is the crusty maverick who's been feuding with Eastwood for decades. Donald Sutherland is the team's never-say-die Lothario. (Hollywood still hasn't figured out how to make films about the elderly without predictable sex gags.) And James Garner is the 'naut turned Baptist minister who'd love an early shot at heaven.

Space Cowboys hardly ranks at the top of Eastwood's work as director, but it's a very respectable showing largely because he injects the project with far more dramatic weight and personal nuance than a typical studio film of this sort would allow. The movie's climactic crisis in outer space boasts special effects deployed for such realistic--and genuinely suspenseful--ends that it makes you regret the extent to which sci-fi has become intertwined with fantasy. Indeed, somewhat as Brian De Palma's more ambitious and impressive Mission to Mars did earlier this year, Space Cowboys reminds us of how space exploration, cinema and its icons were once part of a mindset that aimed to open up new frontiers of human endeavor. The fact that such quests now seem quaint is one reason this movie's elegiac tone rings true. EndBlock

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