We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Hollow Man prompts a look inside Paul Verhoeven’s ciphers.

As far back as Plato’s Republic, invisibility has been rendered as a social issue. When a shepherd twisted his enchanted ring and disappeared, his temptation to act undetected was only half the story. None of his comrades at the sheep-biz confab he was attending thought to ask, “Hey, what happened to Gyges?” They simply began to talk as if he were absent.

Paul Verhoeven must know the feeling. With Showgirls (1995), Starship Troopers (1997), and now Hollow Man, last month’s invisible-man flick, the Dutch expat who built his formidable Hollywood rep with RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992) has witnessed the dwindling of his public and the vanishing of his mainstream critical esteem.

Hollow Man was greeted with nearly universal derision. The best Columbia’s PR flacks could manage opening week was an ad quoting the where-in-the-world-is-Ridgefield Press writer Dave Manning: “One hell of a scary ride!” The kindest cut Verhoeven got from the big-time critics was that he had ripped off James Whale’s 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Movie geeks likewise did Verhoeven no favors. On more than one occasion when I went to the video store to catch up on his back catalog, sneers were directed at Hollow Man by a clerk who had first greeted me wearing a Clockwork Orange shirt.

When I went to see Hollow Man, drawn primarily by the promise of jaw-dropping special effects, I kept waiting for the piece of crap I’d been promised to show up. Sure, the last half-hour goes all monster/slasher on us, but it’s never dull—and besides, nobody gets to make a $95 million B-movie without spilling some blood and blowing some stuff up. And whereas Whale’s version of the tale starts with the hero out of sight and thus is about being invisible (and being psychotic), Verhoeven’s builds gradually to the vanishing point and is about becoming invisible (and really much less about becoming psychotic).

Hollow Man extends the techno-existential concerns of Verhoeven’s other science fiction pictures. RoboCop, the story of a cyborg made from the body of a legally dead policeman, illustrates the mediation of consciousness by machinery. Total Recall, which throws the hero’s memory up for grabs and asks the audience to determine whether Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid is dreaming, insane, or paying the price for a poor career choice, hinges on the hi-tech obliteration of the self. Starship Troopers, a war epic that pits Doogie Howser and refugees from Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place against intergalactic bug armies, is about the integration of interchangeable human units into a virtually insensate, robotlike (or insectoid, if you prefer) mass governed by a group will. Hollow Man, in which Kevin Bacon’s mad scientist makes himself invisible and then makes mayhem, takes up the ghost in the machine. Dr. Caine doesn’t do away with his physical presence—he merely is “successfully phase-shift[ed]…out of quantum sync with the visible universe.” (Verhoeven, who earned a doctorate in math and physics from Leiden University, knows this is hogwash, but bear with him here.) The same kind of quantum shift made Isabelle, a test gorilla, quite vicious, prefiguring the growing animality of Caine, but before he goes ape himself, he first takes up residence in the machine world. His voice echoes through the intercom, and his body heat blooms on monitors connected to infrared cameras. He becomes a rat in a maze, but only on the screens of his underground lab’s motion-detection system.

Outside machine surveillance, which he thwarts via scientific means, Caine is known by only his quickly doffed makeshift latex skin and the results of his actions. As he goes mad, his former identity is effaced. Not just invisible, he truly is hollow. Expensive Hollywood CGI is notorious for creating texturally impoverished surfaces that fail to mesh with their surroundings. Although Hollow Man’s effects teams push the limits of the technology, Verhoeven turns those limits remaining to his benefit, emphasizing Caine’s being in the physical world but not of it. Throughout the film, his form is picked out in a variety of slick, fugitive substances: water, smoke, steam, fire, ash, and, in a visual pun on the slasher pic’s requisite “bloodbath,” bag after bag of red cells.

Although Caine’s transgressions start with voyeurism, in several Hitchcockian scenes that unite the Rear Window roles of James Stewart and Raymond Burr into a single persona, invisibility soon lures the body to follow the eye—and that is when harmless fantasy ends. Plato’s storyteller thought that merely slipping outside of the social weal would cause the invisible man to turn tyrant. Film directors have been less cynical, Whale entrusting the behavioral slide to the side effects of drugs, Verhoeven to those of that dubious quantum phase shift. But none of Hollow Man’s glibly engineered moral speculation would matter all that much if it didn’t provide a perfect, and perfectly transparent, metaphor for the central issue driving most of the director’s productions—and all of his American ones: Verhoeven’s almost complete mistrust of the idea of essential character.

Verhoeven is never straightforwardly corny. He won’t mar a picture with anything like the spirit dove aloft in Blade Runner or the down-home oracle of The Matrix. But Americans love RoboCop best because it’s the corniest, most sentimental bullet in Verhoeven’s bandoleer, coming as close to giving us a good old-fashioned—yet newfangled—hero as he can muster. A Reagan-era tough-on-crime dream come true, Robo (the name Method actor Peter Weller required his very non-Method director to call him during filming) is a monster who still remembers that his name is Murphy.

And Robo still pines for his lost family, because without them he is unmoored. The vast majority of Verhoeven’s protagonists are cut off from kith and kin, leaving them ill-defined. The titular heroine of Keetje Tippel, a 1975 treatment of a memoir that relates a late-19th-century rags-to-riches story, abandons the parents who forced her into prostitution. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Agnes in 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a late-medieval swashbuckler, has been sold into an arranged marriage and has left home to meet her new husband when she is abducted. Quaid’s wife turns out to be a fraud in Total Recall, at least according to most interpretations of the film’s Phildickian mindfuckery. In Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, Mom and Dad are dead. Hollow Man, the World War II drama Soldier of Orange (1977), and the doomy, earthy romance Turkish Delight (1973) are all, on one level, about losing one’s surrogate family: co-workers, school chums, or wife and in-laws, respectively.

The point is to make nobodies of whoever’s left standing at the center of the film. Caine disappears into madness when his girlfriend won’t come back to him; Murphy is absorbed into cybernetics, awakening to find that his wife and son have moved on; Starship Troopers’ enlistees shift from the guardianship of their parents, who vanish when Buenos Aires is pegged by a killer asteroid, to the ownership of the state. And after Polly Ann Costello’s father kills his wife and himself (off-camera—indeed, they never appear in the movie), Showgirls’ central figure reinvents herself as Nomi Malone, whose last name is almost “alone” and whose first (“no me,” “know me,” anagrammatically “omni”) makes her Nowoman and Everywoman. (Did I mention that she ran away from a foster home in Gertrude Stein’s “no there there” Oakland?) The characters’ past is ripped from them, then dangled before them as a taunt.

Verhoeven is not an actor’s director. In Rob van Scheers’ 1996 biography of his countryman, actors who have worked with Verhoeven say he’s looking less for a fresh interpretation of the script than for the execution of patterns he has already envisioned. He’s looking to push characters around. And what better way to do so than in big-budget, blood-and-popcorn B-movies, in which genre conventions rather than individual psychology motivate actions? So it is that Hollow Man becomes a serial-killer potboiler and Starship Troopers a pastiche of teen dramas, gung-ho wartime newsreels, and late-show combat movies, as well as Triumph of the Will. And Showgirls, a spoof of every hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show musical from Strike Up the Band to Fame and of every tale of the grasping ingénue from All About Eve (of which it is a rewrite) to Flashdance (with which it shares a screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas), plays like a sleazy exploitation flick.

The stock manipulation of characters and scenarios isn’t simply an artifact of big-budget bankability, however. In several cases, Verhoeven explicitly brings his metascripts inside the picture. Total Recall is driven by the customized secret-agent scenario that Quaid requested be implanted into his memory. In Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone’s icy novelist-heiress Catherine Tramell kills according to the plot of her last thriller—and plans to kill according to that of her next. And it’s Jeroen Krabbé’s pretentious artiste who holds together the shaky supernatural conspiracy of 1983’s The 4th Man; without the force of an imagination shaped by the exigencies of fictional narrative, as represented by the novel he never quite writes, we’d never believe the febrile, magical-realist visions on which the plot turns.

To Verhoeven, the narrative drive of the B-movie is related to the predestined, cyclical flow of the fairy tale, a literary form in which essential character is simplified and concentrated to the point of caricature. In his early movies, recapitulations of scenes underlined his pawns’ altered fates. The first time Rutger Hauer grabs Monique van de Ven’s ass in the mirror in Turkish Delight, they are lovers; the second time, exes. At the beginning of Keetje Tippel, milliner’s assistant van de Ven watches Hauer pass judgment on a lady friend’s hat; later, she herself is the woman beneath the brim. Similarly, RoboCop is framed by pairs of showdowns in the corporate boardroom and in the abandoned steel mill. The matched bedroom scenes of Basic Instinct separate Lustmord from lust with a few jabs of an ice pick; we’re on tenterhooks throughout the second interlude, fearing a re-enactment of the murder that opened the film.

In Showgirls and Starship Troopers, recapitulation yields to replacement; the faces change, but the actions do not. Having pushed the star of her Vegas stage show down the stairs, chorus girl Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) takes her place at the top, only to be asked for the understudy slot by another known saboteur. And as the bug menace dispatches elder combatants, Troopers’ young recruits step into the void, striking the poses and parroting the commands and catch phrases of their fallen comrades. The actions motivate the characters, not the other way around.

Verhoeven’s last two pre-Hollow Man movies are less interesting for their obvious and ugly satires of Hollywood and totalitarianism, respectively, which won them much bile, than as black comedies about the cog-on-the-wheel American workplace, where everyone’s interchangeable. Showgirls takes on the free agent, Starship Troopers the team player. If the moral of the Eszterhas-scripted Basic Instinct is “Everyone’s a killer,” that of its successor is “Everyone’s a whore.” The Old Testament-style theme of universal damnation, which levels all characters into worthlessness, continues in Troopers, even without the poison pen of Uncle Joe: High-minded and doughty though the kids may be, now everyone’s just a tool.

Verhoeven’s fading Hollywood rep may have something to do with the fact that his last three pictures can be read as veiled assaults on the biz. In Hollow Man, he even puts the screws to himself (known as he is for megalomaniacal outbursts on-set), and to the director-producer relationship. In a scene in which government-supported scientist Caine plays for time with his funders, he is warned by a Pentagon desk jockey that if he keeps blowing his budget, “Your genius will cease to impress me.” In Showgirls, Verhoeven’s most extended attack on the film industry, as well as his most thinly clad, Vegas is a proving ground for Tinseltown. Coming ostensibly from the East, a pickup squeals into a parking lot across from the Riviera casino and deposits Nomi in the land of dreams beneath a sign that punningly reads “Westward Ho.” Once she has blown her cover, worn out her welcome, and steeled herself for the big time, the same truck spirits her toward L.A., where she’ll be ready to play the same part in a new milieu. A subtext of Troopers, whose cast members the director told Artforum were picked because they “have a certain one-dimensional quality,” is the absorption and dissipation of basic human emotion by pageantry and spectacle. To Verhoeven, the actor is the epitome of the hollow man.

Rape is a device Verhoeven repeatedly employs as a trial of identity—a quirk that has fortified his harshest critics (among them Clockwork Orange Boy). When the sexual aspect of the violation is merely symbolic, identity is unsettled, as in Total Recall and RoboCop’s memory erasures, Starship Troopers’ brain-sucking mergers with the insect hordes, and Hollow Man’s backbreaking “reversion” scenes. But “traditional” rape often has a bizarre outcome. Call it the Leiden Syndrome: In the biker flick Spetters (1980), Flesh + Blood, and Basic Instinct, rape draws the victim into sympathy with his or her attacker. Although his viewers expect the victims to be damaged to the marrow, Verhoeven depicts them as easily led, basically lacking a core.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Verhoeven has run afoul of gay and lesbian activists for his similarly idiosyncratic use of homosexuality. The gang rape of Spetters’ Eef is not only punitive (he’s been mugging gay prostitutes and blackmailing their clients), it also leads him, improbably, to embrace his own gayness. In Basic Instinct, female bisexuality is taken as a sign of the unpredictability and untrustworthiness of Catherine Tramell (who also goes by the pen name Catherine Woolf). Gina Gershon’s Cristal is similarly marked in Showgirls. And Tramell’s sociopathy, signaled via Vertigo-style identity crises, is conjoined with her sexual orientation; her lover Roxy is a tougher, butcher version of herself, so much so that the cops initially mistake her for Tramell. Verhoeven’s most elegant—OK, only elegant, elegance not being his thing—use of homoeroticism is Soldier of Orange’s famous tango between Dutchman-turned-Nazi Alex and his former college pal Erik, now a member of the Resistance.

In this scene, Verhoeven lays bare his obsession with the hollow, indeterminate figures toward whom he is so cavalier (some would say cruel). A child of World War II, Verhoeven has seen firsthand how little essential character—by sentimental American reckoning, the engine of heroism or villainy—matters in the real world, where actors are shaped by circumstance. Alex and Erik are separated by happenstance: Alex becomes a Nazi because his mother is German; Erik enters the Resistance because he’s an adventurer swayed by friends more committed than he is. Yet the two easily could have been partners.

The closest a Verhoeven character comes to speaking the idea driving the director’s reliance on ciphers is when Total Recall’s Kuato, a mutant Resistance leader who grows out of his host’s belly like a circus freak, tells Quaid, “You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.” But, like virtually all Total Recall’s characters, Kuato may not “exist” at all. When the film ends in a radiant, golden-age-of-Hollywood kiss between Quaid and the girl who helped him save the world, we are left to unravel exactly what has happened over the last two hours. But even if we are able to choose a single, unconflicted interpretation, it’s impossible to lay it at the feet of Quaid—or even Arnold. The picture belongs to Verhoeven, an auteur who has made a career out of shooting blanks. CP