Scientist Dr. Sebastian Caine (Bacon) has developed a serum that can make a subject invisible. His team of scientists, which includes ex-girlfriend Dr. Linda McKay (Shue) and Dr. Matt Kensington (Brolin), eventually enable the serum to work on a female gorilla and restore the animal back to visibility. Sebastian once again becomes obsessed with Linda while unbeknownst to him, she has become involved with Matt. Instead of reporting his success to the military, Sebastian lies to the oversight committee, which includes his mentor Dr. Howard Kramer (Devane), convincing his team to go right into human testing. The procedure is performed on Sebastian himself. Despite the pain he undergoes, it is successful and Sebastian turns completely invisible. He then enjoys sneaking around the lab in order to scare and play pranks on his fellow co-workers. They become a little concerned that he is taking it too far. After three days, however, he is unable to revert to visibility.
Sebastian is quarantined in the laboratory due to his condition and the other researchers construct a latex mask for him to wear around the lab. Unable to cope with the isolation, he defies instructions and sneaks out of the building. The guard working there is also very suspicious but before he can do anything, Sebastian gets into his car and drives off to his apartment to bring some things back to the lab. There, he happens to notice his neighbor disrobing and goes to her apartment where he rapes her. Linda warns him that if he leaves again, she and Matt will tell the committee about the experiment. Ignoring their threat, Sebastian assembles a device that runs a video loop of his heat signature in his quarters. He leaves the lab again and spies on Linda and Matt, becoming enraged when he sees them having sex.
The team soon discover that they have been watching a recording and that Sebastian has been escaping without their knowledge. Linda and Matt go to Dr. Kramer's house and confess their experiments. After they leave, Kramer attempts to warn his colleagues but Sebastian, who has followed Linda and Matt to the house, cuts off Kramer's phone connection before drowning him in his own pool. The next day, Sebastian waits until all of the team is in the lab and then disables the phones and the elevator codes except for his own. He removes his clothing and latex mask and, invisible, decides to go on a killing spree, with Janice being his first victim. He also changes the security codes of all staff.
Linda and the others hide in the lab, while Matt and Carter take tranquilizer guns to hunt for Sebastian, using thermal imaging goggles. While on top of a pipe, Sebastian throws Carter toward a steel bar, which hits his carotid artery, and leaves him mortally wounded. Matt and Sebastian get into a fight; just before the former is killed, Linda drags him to safety. After Carter dies from his injuries, Sarah heads to the freezer to get blood for a transfusion but is killed by Sebastian. He then kills Frank with a crowbar when he lets his guard down, and locks an injured Matt and Linda in the freezer-store room, leaving them to freeze to death. Linda then constructs an electromagnet using a defibrillator and other equipment, to open the freezer door. She then gathers materials to assemble a flamethrower. Sebastian goes to the lab, where he creates nitroglycerin and puts it in a centrifuge with a timer which is meant to destroy the facility after he leaves; he also smashes the keyboard so nobody can stop the machine.
Just as he enters the elevator to leave, Linda appears and fires the flamethrower at him. Sebastian barely manages to escape the flames and the two fight. Before Sebastian can kill Linda, Matt appears and hits Sebastian with the crowbar. Sebastian recovers and approaches Matt and Linda from behind with the crowbar but Matt deflects the blow, throwing Sebastian into a nearby circuit box, apparently electrocuting him and rendering him partially visible. Linda and Matt find the nitroglycerin about to explode and decide to climb up the elevator shaft to escape. The two are almost out when Sebastian, despite his injuries, grabs Linda's ankle and starts humping her leg and licks her boot and her leg, and forcibly kisses her one last time, before she grabs the elevator cable and knocks the car and Sebastian tries to grab a hold of Linda's foot but he pulls off her boot and Sebastian falls to his death into the explosion in the shaft below. Linda and Matt emerge from the burning laboratory and emergency personnel take them away in an ambulance.
At the time of Hollow Man's release, Bacon recounted a "bad morning" on which, among other mishaps, he read a story in the press that suggested Robert Downey, Jr. had been offered the film's title role.
Following the multi-layered and controversial Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven wanted to tone down the levels of sex and violence in his next film, aiming to make a more "conventionally commercial blockbuster". Approximately $50 million of the film's $95 million budget was reserved for visual effects work, which was primarily worked on by Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI) and Tippett Studio. Of the 560 visual effects shots in the film, approximately two-thirds were worked on by SPI and the remaining third by Tippett Studio. Verhoeven also storyboarded most of the film, as he had done with all of his American films after experiencing trouble coordinating the action of Flesh+Blood (1985). He maintains that over 90% of the film is how he storyboarded it, as it was expensive (costing up to $300,000) if he decided to change a camera movement.
The film was shot in chronological order, partially due to the fact that the laboratory set would be physically blown up near the end of the story, a sequence that was captured by 14 cameras at various angles. Principal photography began on April 16, 1999. Six weeks into filming, Elisabeth Shue tore her Achilles tendon, which shut down production on June 25 for over seven weeks. At one point, producers considered replacing her; however, shooting resumed on August 18, 1999 and ran until February 4, 2000.
Hollow Man was one of very few films allowed to shoot directly in front of The Pentagon building, with Verhoeven expressing surprise that the script was approved, because of the themes of the United States Government commissioning scientific experiments into making living beings invisible. Many of the location scenes were shot in and around Washington, D.C., with a restaurant set also being constructed in a building overlooking the U.S. Capitol. The laboratory scenes were shot at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California; the elevator shaft used in the film's climax was built onto the side of the studio's parking garage.
A thermal imaging camera was employed for scenes showing "invisible" animals (most notably Isabelle the gorilla) or Sebastian following his transformation and the unsuccessful attempt to restore him back to visibility; the same technique was used for characters when they look through thermal goggles. As Isabelle was played in part by a man in a gorilla suit, crew members had to stand by and warm the suit with hair dryers in order for the thermal camera to accurately emulate an actual gorilla's warmth.
Despite assumptions that Bacon would not be needed on set except when his character Sebastian is visible, Verhoeven and the crew realized after test footage was shot that he would need to be present to interact with the cast, as "the other actors were stranded in empty space, and the scenes looked stiff, inorganic and unconvincing" without him. Guy Pearce and Edward Norton were also considered for the role of Sebastian before Bacon was chosen, in part for his "ability to be both charming and diabolical".
To achieve the effects of Sebastian being invisible, Bacon was digitally removed from the footage and each scene was shot twice: once with the actors and once without, for the background to be able to be seen through Sebastian's body. The crew used a motion-control camera, to ensure the same movements were achieved and the shots were then composited in post-production. For scenes where Sebastian was outlined in smoke, water and blood, Bacon wore a latex body suit, face mask, contact lenses and a dental plate all of one color; green was used for blood, blue for smoke, and black for water. Visual effects supervisor Craig Hayes then replaced Bacon with a digital clone to form an outline of his performance. To make the clone appear more like Bacon, information about "every aspect" of his body was recorded and the entirety of his body, including his genitals, were scanned into a computer. This special-effect performance ensured Hayes a nomination to an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but he lost it to Gladiator.
Inspired after his daughter bought him books on the subject of écorchés at La Specola in Florence, Verhoeven enlisted special effects supervisor Scott Anderson to create a three-dimensional digital model of the inside of Bacon's body, to create the "transformation scene" where Sebastian becomes invisible. New volume-rendering software was required just to replicate the inside of Bacon's body. The scene depicts Sebastian disappearing in stages; first, his skin, followed by his muscles, organs (including his lungs and heart) and finally, his skeleton. Bacon detailed the complications of his role in a diary he kept while filming and believed the "sense of isolation, anger and suffering" he felt while wearing the mask and body suit helped his performance.
The scene of an invisible Sebastian raping a woman in a neighboring apartment was shot in two versions, with the second showing her screaming as she is raped. The first was used when preview audiences reacted with disdain, deeming it "painful" and feeling it alienated them from Sebastian too early. Although excising certain shots from the version he called "stronger[,] harsher and at the same time more relevant [for Sebastian Caine]", Verhoeven did not actually intend to show the rape, claiming "a woman being raped by an invisible man would look silly and that's the last thing we'd want to do. [...] It wouldn't express in any way the severity of the violence happening at that moment." Regardless, it was Verhoeven's first film he did not have to recut and resubmit to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in order to achieve an R rating.
Professor of film and literature at California Polytechnic State University Douglas Keesey wrote in his illustrated book on the life and films of Verhoeven that the camera often adopts Sebastian's point of view, "tempting us to become voyeurs along with him, to get off on our ability to see without being seen". Elisabeth Shue categorized the film as a "story of the dark, seductive nature of evil" and also pointed out its voyeuristic qualities. Verhoeven commented: "Hollow Man leads you by the hand and takes you with Sebastian into teasing behaviour, naughty behaviour and then really bad and ultimately evil behaviour. At what point do you abandon him? I'm thinking when he rapes the woman would probably be the moment that people decide, 'This is not exactly my type of hero', though I must say a lot of viewers follow him further than you would expect."
The soundtrack for Hollow Man was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, his third collaboration with Verhoeven after Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992). Varèse Sarabande released it on CD on July 25, 2000.
Filmtracks.com found there to be two distinct motifs: the "transitional motif" of "bass thumping and [an] array of prickling electronic effects that slowly increase their pace and volume as the scenes [of invisibility] progress", heard in "Isabelle Comes Back" and "This Is Science"; and the "rambling piano and bass-element ostinato heard for the violent chasing" in both "The Elevator" and "The Big Climb". The site pointed out "the pulsating piano, woodwind, and electronic rhythm from [Basic Instinct] underneath a meandering, disembodied theme for high strings not much unlike [The Haunting]", and judged that the "action bursts, especially with the drum pad and synthesizer combos" were akin to Goldsmith's use of those elements in Total Recall. Overall, the site felt the score was "over the top", calling it "pieced together from other Goldsmith scores" and derivative while citing the first and second tracks as highlights.
The film received negative reviews. As of 2013, Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 27% based on 114 reviews. The site's consensus states: "Despite awesome special effects, Hollow Man falls short of other films directed by Paul Verhoeven. This flick over time degenerates into a typical horror film." At Metacritic, the film maintains a score of 24 out of 100 from 35 reviews. While some critics criticized the plot and acting, with some claiming it contains hallmarks of slasher films and misogynistic undertones, most critics praised the visual effects employed on making Kevin Bacon invisible, which earned the film a nomination at the 2001 Academy Awards.
Roger Ebert gave the film 2 stars out of 4, and complained that Verhoeven wasted potential by taking an invisible man and doing nothing more than having him go berserk. While ultimately feeling that the film is merely a slasher film with a science gimmick, Ebert praised the special effects, calling them "intriguing" and "astonishing".
A fake review attributed to David Manning was revealed in late 2001 as a hoax, created by Sony to fake publicity for the film.
Despite a negative response from critics, the film debuted at #1 with $26.4 million in its opening weekend. After fifteen weeks of release, Hollow Man had grossed in excess of $73 million in North America and just over $117 million elsewhere, making a total of $190 million worldwide and doubling its $95 million production budget. It was Verhoeven's biggest hit since Basic Instinct (1992).
Hollow Man was released on DVD and VHS in North America by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment on January 2, 2001. It was released with its widescreen theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and included various special features, including two audio commentaries—one with Verhoeven, writer Andrew W. Marlowe and Kevin Bacon, and another with composer Jerry Goldsmith and the isolated score of the film; the HBO making-of featurette "Hollow Man: Anatomy of a Thriller"; 15 mini-featurettes on the making of the film, several detailing storyboards of progress shots with commentary; three deleted scenes with commentary by Verhoeven; visual effects picture-in-picture comparisons of the raw footage with the final scene; cast and crew biographies; a teaser and a theatrical trailer. In the years that followed, both a deluxe Superbit edition was made, as well as a director's cut of the film, which restored nearly seven minutes of footage—primarily extended cuts of existing scenes including Linda and Matthew in bed, the rape scene, Sebastian killing the dog and the aftermath of Sarah being suspicious of Sebastian.
The only available version of the film on Blu-ray is the director's cut, which was released on October 16, 2007 with a 1080p resolution. Although lacking any commentaries, it restores most other special features. A two-disc DVD double pack including the stand-alone sequel Hollow Man 2 was also released in 2006.