Review: The Invisible Man is a horror film that works on multiple levels

Elisabeth Moss gets the gaslighting treatment in Universal’s reinvention of The Invisible Man.

A traumatized woman escapes her abusive relationship, only to find she is being stalked by an unseen entity in The Invisible Man, (very) loosely based on the H.G. Wells science fiction novel. It’s less a direct adaptation than a reinvention, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, best known for the Saw and Insidious horror franchises. The Invisible Man is horror in the best sense of the word, working on multiple levels and firmly anchored by star Elisabeth Moss’ intensely emotional, yet nuanced, performance.

(Some spoilers below.)

First serialized and then published as a book in 1897, the novel tells the story of a scientist named Griffin, whose research into optics leads him to invent a means of turning himself invisible with a serum that chemically alters his body’s refractive index to match that of air. Wells cited Plato’s Republic as one of his influences, notably a legend involving a magic ring that renders a man invisible, which Plato used to explore whether a person would behave morally if there were no repercussions for bad behavior.

The critically acclaimed 1933 film adaptation by Director James Whale starred Claude Rains as the titular Invisible Man and was so successful that it spawned several sequels and spinoffs, some good, some bad. Universal announced a remake of The Invisible Man in 2016, part of a planned series of films for the studio’s Dark Universe project. The shared cinematic universe was also supposed to include The Mummy and the Bride of Frankenstein. But the 2017 film The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, was a critical and box office failure, and the studio abandoned the shared universe plan soon after to focus on standalone stories.

Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man combines elements of the original premise with another classic film, Gaslight (1944), about an abusive husband who tries to drive his wife mad. The story opens with Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) sneaking away in the dead of night from the luxurious seaside house she shares with her abusive scientist boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) with the help of her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer). Cecelia takes refuge with her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenaged daughter Ashley (Storm Reid), but she is slow to recover from the trauma she suffered at Adrian’s hands, too afraid to even leave the house.

She then learns that Adrian has committed suicide, inexplicably leaving her several million dollars in his will, with the contingency that she not be deemed mentally unsound. It’s not long before strange things begin to happen—a stovetop fire, for instance, or the contents of her architectural portfolio mysteriously disappearing right before a big job interview. Cecelia begins to sense that she is being watched—stalked—by an unseen presence. She is soon convinced that Adrian isn’t really dead but has figured out a way to make himself invisible, the better to manipulate and control her. But of course, nobody believes her.

Whannell’s horror bona fides are evident throughout the film. It’s well paced, with a solid, coherent plot that still boasts plenty of twists. The menace builds slowly at first, and Whannell is a master of setting up jump scares, using that skill to great effect in The Invisible Man. One scene in particular is utterly unexpected and shocking, shifting the tone and raising the stakes dramatically to set up the final act. But this is more than a standard horror film. The film is also highly atmospheric and beautifully shot in such a way that the audience begins to share Cecelia’s claustrophobic, increasingly paranoid inner state.

What you can’t see can hurt you

Elisabeth Moss performed a lot of her own stunts, particularly for a kitchen scene where she is tossed around like a rag doll by her unseen attacker. But it’s her ability to be simultaneously paranoid and brave, terrified and determined, vulnerable and strong, and ultimately ruthless in reclaiming her autonomy, that makes Cecelia such a relatable and memorable character.

Whannell clearly made a conscious decision to focus on Cecelia’s point of view. That’s part of what makes The Invisible Man such a powerful portrayal of a woman recovering from prolonged domestic abuse and the associated psychological trauma. But it does mean that other characters are less fully sketched out, Adrian in particular. We are told he is brilliant, precise, a bit OCD, and highly manipulative and controlling, but this is mostly via secondhand reports—apart from his violent outburst at the start of the film when he catches up to Cecelia just as she drives off with her sister.

Adrian is defined by his absence for much of the film, so when we finally do get to meet him in the final confrontation, it’s frankly a bit of a letdown. He comes off as more petulant than menacing. But that, too, is in keeping with Cecelia’s perspective and her psychological journey throughout the film. The monster who abused her for all those years is revealed as a rather pathetic man who can also be manipulated in turn and only has power over her if she allows it.

Adrian is defined by his absence for much of the film.

In most prior incarnations, the invisibility “superpower” is conferred through chemistry—the aforementioned serum—although the details regarding the precise mechanisms at work have always been left deliberately vague. That includes such recent treatments as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Kevin Bacon’s character in the 2000 film Hollow Man (although in the former, the Invisible Man is not the scientist, Griffin, but a Cockney thief named Skinner who drank the formula to give himself a professional advantage).

Whannell takes a different tack, drawing on more recent cutting-edge optics research on cloaking technology—Adrian’s scientific speciality. Here, the invisibility comes courtesy of a full body suit augmented with thousands of tiny cameras, enabling the wearer to blend seamlessly with his (or her) surroundings. We never learn precisely how it’s supposed to work, but it does make for some striking visuals, particularly when Cecelia successfully damages the suit so that her tormentor occasionally becomes partially visible.

The Invisible Man is on track for a solidly successful opening weekend, with projected domestic box office receipts in the $ 25 million range—and possibly exceeding $ 30 million—against a modest $ 7 million production budget. That’s on par with Split (2016) and 2017’s Get Out, two previous Universal-Blumhouse collaborations. Universal is already developing a standalone film, The Invisible Woman (not the Marvel superhero), directed by and starring Elizabeth Banks, which will likely have a very different tone than Whannell’s film, given their distinct directorial styles. So this might just become a different kind of non-shared-universe cinematic franchise after all.

The Invisible Man is now playing in theaters.

The Invisible Man pranks cast members and journalists as part of the studio’s promotional efforts for Leigh Whannell’s film.

Listing image by YouTube/Universal Pictures

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