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January 2001
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Lucius Shepard
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by Kathi Maio

A Transparent Case of Larceny

I wonder what James Whale and H. G. Wells would have had to say about this month's little travesty.

Whale (horror filmmaker extraordinaire, and subject of the very fine screen biography, Gods and Monsters, a couple of years ago) made a movie back in 1933 called The Invisible Man. The film was written by R. C. Sherriff and Philip Wylie, and based, of course, on the 1897 classic novel by the grand-pere of modern science fiction, H. G. Wells.

The film's special effects, although extremely modest by today's standards, were cutting-edge in 1933. And even today they are eerily effective when combined with the elegantly sinister power of Claude Rains's voice (in his no-show—except for the last few seconds—American screen debut).

Moreover, the film is full of director Whale's sardonic humor and outsider insights. We alternately identify with the anguished, arrogant "monster" and with the suspicious, insular society that refuses to embrace him. For, although the townsfolk of Iping (exemplified by the Una O'Connor, at her screeching best) may be absurd and closed-minded, they are nonetheless innocents who do not deserve the terror visited upon them.

Although it is not Mr. Whale's best work, The Invisible Man is still an important early horror film. And if you need proof, all you need do is look at the dozens of times this ground-breaking thriller has been sequeled, spoofed, and otherwise imitated by movies over the years.

In most cases the imitation qualified as sincere (if opportunistic) flattery because the later, and always lesser, film's title included the phrase "invisible man" and the requisition of key plot elements was obvious and acknowledged in everything from The Invisible Man Returns (1940) to Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951) to Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992).

Yet, in terms of plot and theme, none of the above-mentioned films are half as close to Whale's original The Invisible Man as a film released this past summer called Hollow Man.

Okay, no surprise there. I've discussed the cannibalistic nature of Hollywood before. And there is usually nothing so unoriginal as an FX-oriented summer blockbuster.

So, if cinematic kleptomania is the norm, what's the problem? Well, I like my robberies to be honest. Since many viewers in today's youth-oriented audience are ignorant of their film history, it is especially important for contemporary filmmakers to concede their debt to their predecessors—if not in the film's title and credits, at least in their press-notes and publicity interviews.

For a good example of this, I cite this past summer's superb Chicken Run. That film was a one-of-a-kind joy. Still, directors Nick Park and Peter Lord, and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, all readily admitted that they were making "The Great Escape with Chickens," and cited numerous other POW films that influenced their work to anyone that would listen to them.

To my mind, that's "homage." In the case of Hollow Man, it's something much closer to plagiarism.

For, unless I missed something somewhere, not even a token recognition was afforded to Mr. Whale's Invisible Man by the men who made this past season's Hollow replicant.

Oh, that infamous pornographer of violence and sleaze, director Paul Verhoeven, did cite cultural influences. But (arrogant soul that he is) he claims that he discovered the source inspiration for his latest film in the work of ancient Greek philosopher, Plato.

According to Mr. Verhoeven, Plato theorized that morality is external and that "if he could get away with it" an "invisible" man would "rape and kill at will." (I don't remember enough of my Plato to say whether the old gent actually thought that way, but the Dutch director surely does!)

In not a single interview or production note that I saw or read did Mr. Verhoeven mention that he was, for all intents and purposes, doing a modern remake of James Whale's classic film. And neither did the few quotes that I saw from screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe (End of Days) indicate his debt to Wells, Sherriff, and Wylie.

However, Marlowe said that he wanted to avoid the clichés of the invisible person genre. (Believe me, he didn't.) And he is quoted as finding his own story to be "an exciting morality play." (How modest of him.) If he admitted that his "morality play" was a rewrite of the original Invisible Man, I sure didn't catch it.

But the similarities between the two films are striking. Like the protagonist, Griffin (Rains), of the Whale film—and Wells's novel—Hollow Man's central character is a youngish, driven, and highly ambitious scientist. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) is a dedicated, if ruthless, researcher, convinced of his own brilliance.

The head of a secret Pentagon research project to find an invisibility serum, Caine (like Griffin) decides to make himself the first human test subject. The "bio-quantum" self-erasure works well. But, like Griffin before him, Sebastian finds that reverting to normal is more complicated than he thought.

Like Griffin, Caine's protracted invisibility drives him insane. . . . or, at least, seems to exacerbate his natural inclination to violent megalomania.

Griffin kills those who have threatened or betrayed him. And so does Caine. Needless to say, of course, the violence in Hollow Man is ten times more graphic than that in The Invisible Man. Color photography helps. Mr. Verhoeven loves blood. (In one scene, a floor is almost awash in corpuscles!) And we see numerous strangulations, garrotings, impalings, drownings, and other assaults, up close and personal, by the time the movie shudders to a close.

We also see a dog smashed up against the wall of a metal cage. (This is shot in heat-sensor photography, but is no less graphic and disturbing for the glowing colors of the image.) And because Mr. Verhoeven has a special appreciation for sexual violence, he has to give his hero/monster a chance to rape an innocent neighbor just for the hell of it.

To illustrate that the Griffin/Caine title character has irrevocably descended into madness and malevolence, some brutality is appropriate to the story. But the Marlowe/Verhoeven approach is to slaughter every character in the cast, in the most gruesome manner possible, as if they were making some direct-to-video slasher movie.

And, like the slasher movie, they also pull out every cliché of modern horror. Kill the black character first. Kill everyone else next. Only the spunky, sexy heroine (Elisabeth Shue, who looks embarrassed and depressed to be playing such a hackneyed role) and her boyfriend (Josh Brolin) will survive.

The spunky heroine will somehow manage to fight back successfully against the monster, against unbelievable—and I do mean unbelievable—odds. Shue's character bashes Caine (her former lover, natch). Then she burns him to a crisp. When that doesn't slow him down, she electrocutes him. But, still, he keeps coming back for more. (Maybe he is a god.)

And for some reason, somewhere along the way, the monster Caine gets part of his visible body back. Not all of it, of course. That wouldn't be gross enough. He regains just enough of a physical manifestation to make Kevin Bacon look like that plastic anatomy model little boys used to get for Christmas from education-minded relatives.

If Elisabeth Shue is sorely miscast, so is poor Kevin Bacon. He is a good actor, but he is singularly unconvincing as a mad scientist. And he is even less believable in the role of Monster-That-Would-Not-Die.

As everyone already knows, the special effects in Hollow Man are very well done. Besides the elaborate dematerialization of primate and human bodies, there are some very nice water and powdery fog effects that allow us to see Caine when he is invisible.

But good FX do not a good movie make. (As perhaps we viewers have already learned, from The Haunting. And The Matrix. And that big green monster from a couple of summers ago. And . . .) Certainly a few hundred state-of-the-art effects could not help Hollow Man, a movie even more empty than its title character.

I am outraged by Verhoeven and Marlowe's shameless attempt to rip-off, without attribution, the classic work of a fiction master and his filmic interpreter. Still, Wells and Whale would probably prefer to be anonymously pirated than to have the memory of their impressive work sullied by association with Paul Verhoeven.

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