A sense of disappointment arises during the last two reels or so of "Hollow Man," as director Paul Verhoeven's previously thoughtful, provocative and chilling update of H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man" degenerates into the most familiar of genre movies.
When a sympathetic female character meets a nasty end, the Dutch-born filmmaker has suddenly shifted into slasher-film territory. The only suspense left is guessing the gruesome methods by which the other victims will be dispatched, the identities of the survivors and what sort of apocalyptic annihilation awaits the villain. Bodies are gored, buckets of blood are duly dished out and spectacularly fiery explosions are unleashed.
Verhoeven (responsible for the smarts of "Robocop" and "Total Recall," but also the schlock of "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls") balances that sadly predictable last act with a pair of early sequences that are as remarkable, frightening and full of special-effects wonder as anything seen on the big screen since a slimy beast popped out of John Hurt's chest 21 years ago in "Alien."
Those cinematic miracles begin in a top-secret genetics laboratory, where brilliant young scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) has been able to keep an ape named Isabelle in a state of invisibility since injecting her with a serum developed by the researcher and his young team. When Caine -- a workaholic hotshot who speeds around Washington, D.C., in his Porsche, cranking up the heavy alt-rock -- unexpectedly cracks the "reversion" code, it becomes possible for Isabelle to once again become visible to the naked eye.
The transformation is spectacular, as arteries and veins, bones, flesh and (finally) fur come into view, the body parts popping into place in vivid paint-by-numbers fashion. The ape survives, but not without suffering violent convulsions. The intense, don't-blink scene leaves us exhausted when it's over.
The same might be said about Crane's eye-popping molecular migration in the other direction: his disturbing journey to invisibility. Against the advice of his associates, including his right-hand woman and former girlfriend, Linda Foster (Elisabeth Shue), the eccentric genius decides to go to "phase three," or human experimentation. Without the approval of Dr. Kramer (William Devane), the head of the Pentagon committee that oversees the project, Crane appoints himself as guinea pig.
Linda, her new lover, Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin), and the other lab staffers watch in horror as the gooey blue liquid invades Crane, gradually erasing his skin, muscles, organs and skeleton. He, too, contorts in pain during the process. The sequence constitutes an amazing bit of work by visual-effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson (an Oscar winner for "Babe" and a nominee for Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers").
At first the invisible guy uses his newfound state for fun, playing tricks on his colleagues and goofing on strangers. A state of desperation, though, begins to settle in as Crane realizes that his invisibility may not be as temporary as he had figured.
In the course of the story, Verhoeven and writer Andrew Marlowe ("End of Days," "Air Force One") effectively broach issues of animal rights and scientific arrogance. But then, swiftly and surely, Caine turns sinister, and the silliness sets in.