Hello, welcome to Rental Floss, a regular column in which I trawl through the dregs of the Netflix catalogue, probe the miserably rated, examine why cultural consensus favours some films over others and maybe find the good in films generally considered the opposite. The films included in this column must meet a certain criteria: they must be a) available on Netflix UK so they're easily accessible to you lovely people, as you are all welcome to join in, and b) either rated 3.0 or lower on Netflix and/or rotten on Rotten Tomatoes with 50% or less. Enjoy!

  • Name: Hollow Man (2000)
  • Director: Paul Verhoeven
  • Running Time: 112 mins
  • Starring: Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens
  • Tagline: "What would you do if you knew you couldn't be seen?"
  • Rating: Rotten Tomatoes - 27% / Netflix - 3.0/5

Hollow Man (2000) is a horrible film to write about, so I'm going to do it. At least, I'm not going to discuss the film itself in any particular detail. This is a film so hollow (sorry) that analysing it in isolation becomes something of a masochistic task. There's just very little going on beneath the surface here. At best it's an exercise in sterile, commercial banality; little more than a post-modern hodgepodge of worn-out science-fiction and thriller tropes. Focusing specifically on the narrative and formal elements of Hollow Man and deliberating on whether or not they've been fairly judged would be boring for me to write and even more of a slog for you to read.

There is, however, something interesting to be found if we turn our attention towards the context of Hollow Man's creation. It's one thing to say that the film is insipid, but if we want to understand why that's the case and why the film seems to be universally held in contempt, then we have to examine the extratexual information surrounding the film. See, rather than being the story of an egotistical scientist played by Kevin Bacon who turns himself invisible and goes mad, Hollow Man is the story of one misfit filmmaker's fraught relationship with an evolving Hollywood Machine that could no longer accommodate him. The latter is more compelling, at least.

The filmmaker in question is Paul Verhoeven. Although he began his career in Holland, he's best known for his Hollywood films: RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). Today we can look at his American filmography and see a list mostly comprised of exemplary Hollywood films, some of the best genre movies of the past thirty years and Showgirls, but in his day he wasn't as much revered as reviled. You see, Verhoeven's films dealt with extremes of human behaviour: just look at the excessive violence of RoboCop and Total Recall, or the explicit hyper-sexuality of Basic Instinct and Showgirls. His films were challenging and drew strong reactions from cinemagoers. Rather than beguiling audiences and critics, Verhoeven's manner of filtering transgressive and perverse actions through a decidedly pornographic lens disgusted and repulsed them. For the mainstream, his films were overly contrary, aggressive and derisive - hardly something you want if you go to the movies for easy entertainment. So, throughout his time in America, Verhoeven was often fobbed-off as a purveyor of big-budgeted, sleazy, sensationalist trash - an interesting director of small European films who packed his bags and sold his soul to the Dream Factory.

However, with the distance that time provides, we are now in a better place to appreciate the relative subtlety of Verhoeven's films, and his work has been widely reappraised. It's now commonly accepted that he used his outsider status as a Dutchman to satirically attack what he thought to be the most degenerate parts of American culture. And he did so with a contemptuous ferocity, taking these facets of Americanism to some frighteningly logical extremes: the Reaganite privatization of Robocop or fascistic American foreign policy of Starship Troopers, are examples of this. Moreover, he took what audiences secretly desired - to see that guy's face blown off, to see that actress' breasts - and gave it to them wholesale, but he did it to such an extent that they felt uncomfortable. Audiences didn't like the feelings engendered by Verhoeven's films and they accused him of being a misanthrope and a pervert. What they failed to recognise was those uneasy feelings were designed by Verhoeven and were absolutely valid because art should strive to challenge us. Even the Hollywood blockbusters we expect to be easy. We have to ask ourselves why we feel uncomfortable when confronted with, say, pretty much everything in Showgirls, and how it relates to us. Chaos and the extreme, and more importantly how we react to them, can help us make sense out of our internal and external anxieties, and that's what his films addressed so brilliantly - besides also being massively entertaining, self-aware pieces of spectacle.

Exactly why audiences in the 90s didn't engage with his films on that level is a bit of a mystery. I have a few theories: it could be that critics and audiences were too quick to dismiss genre films; maybe what was shocking back then doesn't provoke such a strong reaction now, meaning the latent content of his films is more noticeable; or perhaps our culture is just more receptive to irony these days. Either way, people didn't particularly like his films, audience expectations of what Hollywood blockbusters should be and what Verhoeven was making didn't gel. In 1992 he had his biggest box-office success with Basic Instinct, and soon after he made a slow dissolve from the collective consciousness. His next film, Showgirls, was branded one of the worst films ever and Starship Troopers flopped a couple of years later.

He found it increasingly difficult to get work with his tarnished reputation and little public interest in his name. If Hollywood is one big dick waving competition, then Verhoeven was virtually castrated at this point. So he made Hollow Man.

Verhoeven actively rebelled against making nondescript, formulaic films like Hollow Man throughout most of his Hollywood career, but his rebellion wasn't sustainable within the industry regardless of how much it's valorized by poncy writers like me. We must remember that when Verhoeven started making American films during the 1980s, Hollywood was going through its metamorphosis into the beast it is today. During the 60s and 70s, inventive storytellers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick lead Hollywood and basically revolutionised American filmmaking. Spectacle driven blockbusters as we know them today only began to exist towards the latter part of the period, with the likes of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978), but they could coexist with blockbusters made by auteurs and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) could make over $100m. However, the catastrophic failure of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) forced studios to be increasingly wary of the auteur driven blockbuster and there was a swift paradigm shift. Hollywood only makes movies for people who see movies, so if something does well they'll often rise and repeat and if something bombs as spectacularly as Heaven's Gate, they won't want to make the same mistake again. So, by the mid-80s, when Verhoeven made the jump, Hollywood was totally in thrall with style, spectacle and creating films for a generation raised on MTV and video games. As the nature of blockbuster films evolved, the cost of making them rose exponentially. More than ever, the goal of Hollywood productions was to attract as many paying customers as possible so studios could recoup their vast expenses.

While Verhoeven was certainly filmmaker who favoured spectacle, he was also divisive and put people off. He had his successes, sure, but I suppose that Hollywood, the business, was finally done with Paul Verhoeven's shit when Starship Troopers failed to make $60m domestically on a $105m budget. They saw him as a bad investment, a risk, and were absolutely right to think so. Therefore, we can see Hollow Man as Verhoeven's attempt to reconcile his place within Hollywood; a film for 'them' rather than himself; a stab at being commercially accessible in a Hollywood milieu that increasingly abhorred taking risks. To get the sort of big budget he was used to, Verhoeven's had to rein himself in - he couldn't indulge his usual delirium. As a result, Hollow Man feels like a miserable compromise. Of course, all filmmakers frequently have to make compromises between various different aspects of financing, production and editing, but Hollow Man feels like a desperate artistic compromise - something Verhoeven made because he had no other option.

As a result, Hollow Man feels like a neutered version of Verhoeven's usual shtick; something tamer, something insular, something unadventurous. He needed to go all the way to get his message across, he needed to cross the line and he was not afforded that opportunity with Hollow Man. Without the visceral energy engendered by the oxymoronic feeling of excitement and unease that comes with Verhoeven's brand of extreme transgression, Hollow Man film comes off as incredibly listless and it simply doesn't work. Instead of dealing with the complex and nuanced existential and moral implications of invisibility and the military funding it receives in the film - like you would have imagined he would have earlier in his career - Hollow Man quickly trades science-fiction intrigue and social commentary for slasher film conventionality. It's like Verhoeven was too cautious to thoroughly explore the ideas posited by the film's premise, too scared that audiences or the studio wouldn't like it, and instead relies on easily recognisable tropes spliced together from the likes of The Thing (1982), Alien (1979), The Fly (1986) and so on. It is, therefore, hard to discern what Verhoeven is saying with this film, if anything at all. While the line "It's amazing what you can do if you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore," is compelling in isolation, it doesn't really drive home any salient, consistent message that the film is trying to communicate.

It's no surprise that Hollow Man stands out amongst Verhoeven's American filmography as the one film that hasn't been reappraised over the years. It serves as a stark reminder of where he once was as a director, an irrevocable monument to his previous failures. I seriously doubt that he would have gone anywhere near the script if he had any real power or freedom within the industry at the time. But more broadly we can see Hollow Man as more of an encapsulation of contemporary Hollywood than a film in its own right; proof that even the most headstrong filmmakers needed to assimilate and conform to standard practises if they wanted a place at the top of the food chain. Hollywood is a business, it always has been and always will be, but because of the freedom Verhoeven was once afforded and the films he made, Hollow Man demonstrates the growing stringent commercial influence of Hollywood. So Hollow Man is indicative of what Hollywood is today: anodyne, conservative and leaden. And I'm not going to say that it's all Michael Cimino's fault... but it totally is.