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At the Core of the 'Hollow Man'

The movie about an invisible scientist offers an examination of human nature--and an experiment in filmmaking.

August 03, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore."

--Sebastian in "Hollow Man."

You know a film is sailing in uncharted waters when the director slides back in his chair, brushes his hair back with both hands, and says without a trace of contradiction that the underpinning of his latest bloody and violent sci-fi horror picture is rooted in the words of the Greek philosopher Plato.

Bear in mind that in his film a mouse gets picked up and chomped to bits; a dog is slammed to its death against the side of a cage; a woman struggles with a rapist inside her Washington, D.C., apartment; a man smoking a pipe is hurled into his backyard swimming pool by an assailant and drowned; and a research laboratory goes up in flames as the body count of technicians climbs almost by the minute.

Yet, here is Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven comparing the fiendish acts depicted in "Hollow Man," his new R-rated film starring Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue, to words written nearly 2,500 years ago by that great thinker who wrote "The Republic." Yet somehow, listening to what the director of such films as "RoboCop," "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct" is trying to get across in his new film, the use of Plato's ideas as a context for thinking about "Hollow Man's" main character begins to make sense.

Imagine for a moment, the director says, that a man suddenly becomes invisible, enabling him to venture out into society and get away with anything he wants without fear of ever being caught? What possible evil could this man be capable of?

In the Columbia Pictures film, which opens Friday, Bacon plays a highly gifted scientist named Sebastian Caine, who, while working on a top-secret U.S. government research project, develops a serum that induces invisibility. Recklessly disobeying Pentagon orders, he experiments on himself. Writhing in pain on an operating room table, we watch hypnotically as his skin, then his veins, then his muscles and tendons, then his internal organs and, finally, his very bones, vanish like vapor before our eyes.

Now invisible to the human eye, the tricks Sebastian can now perform are both humorous and a little scary:

* He can stare in a mirror without seeing his reflection--unless he splashes himself with water.

* He can approach a slumbering colleague and rearrange the hairs on her head by blowing gently through his lips.

* He can enter a restroom undetected while another female colleague is seated on the toilet.

Not surprisingly, Sebastian becomes intoxicated by his newfound power.

He spies an attractive brunet underdressing for the evening in an apartment window across the way and, while his voyeuristic instincts were always held in check when she did this before, he is now emboldened to visit her. "Who's gonna know?" he asks himself.

He changes the password that allows other researchers to escape the underground lab where they all work. When Linda (Shue) asks where he is, Sebastian comes on the intercom and says, "You don't know what it's like, the power of it, the freedom.

It eventually falls to Linda and her lover and co-worker, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin), to try to stop Sebastian's downward spiral.

"In the beginning, it's a scientific experiment, a secret military operation supported by the Pentagon--how this process of invisibility has been cracked," Verhoeven said of the plot. "But ultimately, the story is based on this premise of Plato's, who said that if somebody becomes invisible, he will grab or steal whatever he can find, he will enter everybody's house and rape whoever he wants, and he will kill whoever he likes and he will become like a god."

This theme runs through "Hollow Man," which is based on a screenplay by Andrew W. Marlowe from a story by Gary Scott Thompson and Marlowe; the film is produced by Alan Marshall and Douglas Wick.

Sony is a studio that could use some more hits. While the Mel Gibson Revolutionary War saga, "The Patriot," is hovering around $100 million at the box office, the studio's next biggest hit this year was Sandra Bullock's "28 Days," which grossed $36.9 million.

With a budget some industry sources peg at around $100 million, "Hollow Man" relies on its special effects rather than a major box-office star to pull in moviegoers. Verhoeven, however, dismisses the $100-million production estimate, saying, "We were not allowed to get there."

*

Normally, an actor of Bacon's stature and ability might look at a script, note that it calls for the male lead to be invisible 70% of the time and kindly take a pass. But Bacon said he was intrigued from the outset by Sebastian, a multilayered (physically and emotionally) character if there ever was one.

"If you took out the invisibility, it would still be an interesting part," Bacon remarked recently by phone from New York.

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