After the catastrophic release of The Mummy, Universal decided to course correct and abandon their plans for a cinematic universe. Their new path includes a line of stand-alone, modern retellings of their monster-movie properties. This should have been their first instinct. Since when have action-centered reboots of Frankenstein, Dracula, or other classical monster stories ever done well? Don’t they remember I, Frankenstein?
Starting off with The Invisible Man was a smart decision. While not as brandable as the other titles, it contains easily mined thriller material. Paul Verhoeven had the same idea when he made Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon, but the attempt was botched. In this version, Leigh Whannel returns to the stripped-down psychological terror that proved an excellent launch pad for a string of forgettable sequels, those being the Saw movies. What set the first Saw film apart was its tight scripting that squeezed suspense out of each scene, and not necessarily the elaborate death scenes (although they were pretty cool, I will admit). The same can be said of The Invisible Man, only I’d argue Whannel has improved his technique.
Right off the bat, this iteration of The Invisible Man signals a change in perspective. Living up to its title, the script makes the antagonist truly invisible, and favors the story of those ensnared in his Machiavellian plots. Elizabeth Moss plays Cecilia, an architect and the wife of narcissistic abuser Adrian Griffin, whose innovative optics company has garnered him millions. The first scene contains a pressure cooker escape scene where all we learn about the film’s namesake is that he possesses disturbing control over Cecelia, down to where she goes within the house. Her escape attempt succeeds, but she continues to live in fear while being sheltered by a childhood friend and police officer, James (Aldis Hodge), and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Soon after her ostensible divorce, he commits suicide. However, Cecilia continues to feel his presence, a feeling confirmed by the escalating attacks made against her by an unseen force.
Here, the story breaks out some impressive and original concepts by reframing the invisibility as technological instead of chemical, and changing the focus from a man’s power and downfall to a woman’s victimization and ascent to triumph. Just as abusers conceal their actions from loved ones and gaslight their partners, Adrian uses his invisibility to turn those figurative tactics literal. As Cecilia suffers from his continued abuse, she only looks more and more unhinged, and soon Adrian makes his actions look like hers, an unsettling representation of the kind of role reversal so prevalent among narcissistic abuse. And on top of this, the explanation of Adrian’s invisibility involving optic technology creates an intriguing and far more plausible premise that ties in with the thematic material, touching on the role of surveillance in domestic violence. The commentary doesn’t run particularly deep, but does feel consistently injected into the story throughout.
Elizabeth Moss turns out a strained and frenetic performance within Whannel’s wide and still shots. In this way we are sucked into Elizabeth Moss’s orbit and are always with her character, while constantly aware of the empty spaces that may not be so empty. You’re constantly searching the frame for signs of Adrian’s presence, absorbing the same paranoia felt by Cecilia. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship between direction and performance.
All in all, while not an amazing movie, The Invisible Man is smart and solid, and carries its premise to the end without losing steam or dropping into levels of farce. For Universal, it’s a perfect recovery and a reinvestment of hope for films to come | Nic Champion