Paul Verhoeven is one of those directors with the Midas touch. Whether it’s Starship Troopers or Basic Instinct, everything he touches is a delight. Even 1995’s Showgirls, often critiqued as one of the worst movies ever, has amassed a cult following thanks to its sheer ridiculousness.
But while a unique filmmaker’s best and worst movies can soar to fame, their more commercially acceptable blockbusters often slip through the cracks. Thankfully, Verhoeven’s most underrated triumph is now streaming on Netflix.
Hollow Man is a film from 2000 inspired by the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man. It tells the story of Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a scientist who offers himself up as a test subject for a new technology that turns living creatures invisible. Because it’s a Verhoeven movie, the procedure goes wrong and leads to terrifying consequences.
At first, Hollow Man looks like the director’s attempt at a superhero story. Sebastian is a brilliant scientist, cracking wise and annoying his colleagues while successfully bringing a gorilla back to visibility. But once Sebastian turns invisible, it gets harder and harder to see him as the hero.
Verhoeven has always skirted the line between tasteful and distasteful nudity, and Hollow Man is no exception. Sebastian is flirtatious at work in a way that would launch a thousand HR complaints. Once rendered invisible, he’s unafraid to unbutton a co-worker’s top while she sleeps. It’s ugly, but a clear sign that Sebastian is no longer the good guy — and likely never was.
Once Sebastian goes full villain, Hollow Man starts to resemble Leigh Whannell’s 2020 adaptation of The Invisible Man. Sebastian may not be “a world leader in the field of optics,” but the tools his terrified victims use are almost identical. Blood is spattered to create a ghostly outline, a fire extinguisher shows his movement through the air, and thermal cameras are used to capture his heat signature. (20 years later, and we still can’t think of a better way to show invisibility in movies?)
There’s another aspect of Hollow Man that renders it similar to more contemporary films: the special effects. Inspired by medical illustrations, Verhoeven portrays the act of going invisible as literally tearing the body apart layer by layer. We see the muscles, the bones, and the organs until eventually all that’s left are the blood vessels. It’s like a turbo-speed tour of a “Bodies” museum exhibit.
Even Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of Sebastian, which mostly takes place via a creepy eyeless flesh-colored latex mask with nothing underneath, is incredibly impressive for being released 22 years ago.
Hollow Man begins as what might have been Verhoeven’s transition into superheroes. Instead, he subverts the genre using techniques refined in both his action movies and his erotic thrillers. It may seem derivative of his past work, but when you’re Paul Verhoeven, you’re allowed to recycle your best ideas.
Hollow Man is now streaming on Netflix.