I wasn’t instantly sold on writer/director Leigh Whannell’s revival of The Invisible Man. I saw the Claude Rains version over forty years ago on late-night TV, courtesy of our local horror-host Sammy Terry, but I’ve never revisited it since. I’d seen none of Whannell’s films to date, though Upgrade is on my to-do list. When this was first announced years ago as an entry in Universal’s “Dark Universe” plan to imitate Marvel’s success at interlocking products, I scoffed and moved on. I assumed the eventual results would be a muddled waste of time.
Two developments in its favor convinced me to give it a try: Elisabeth Moss, who was always great on Mad Men and deeply disturbing in Jordan Peele’s Us; and unusually positive word-of-mouth. Horror films aren’t an easy sell for me, but the glowing reviews weren’t the usual fans raving about super awesome epic kills. The trailer telegraphed some of the zeitgeist-eriffic themes at play, and yet I was curious to know more.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Ms. Moss is Cecilia, an architect and soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend desperate to escape her abusive, domineering boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, the brotherly addict from The Haunting of Hill House). When we meet her, she’s scheming to flee their seaside house, which she probably designed but can’t bear to share with him and his nasty ways anymore. With support from her sister (Harriet Dyer) she makes a getaway, though hardly a clean one. For too many abuse victims like Cecilia, surviving to a “happily ever after” moment isn’t always the end of the story. And this is no mere Lifetime movie.
Cecilia is shocked when Adrian apparently commits suicide and leaves her millions in his will…but then weird stuff starts happening around her. A pan catches fire after the burner is cranked up. A missing pill bottle turns up at a bad time. There’s a fight with a stubborn blanket. Little things like that. We learn Adrian was a master of “optics”, a phrase where which means “the science of tricking your eyes into not seeing stuff right in front of them”. Some of the effects in his lab hint at the invention of a wild and wondrous super-suit covered in gizmos that presumably bend light around him so the human eye can’t perceive him. Or something to that effect — this isn’t cyberpunk-ish hard-SF that dwells on the doctorate terminology involved.
Unless…he wasn’t that accomplished a scientist and he’s actually a ghost? OR…unless he’s dead-dead and Cecilia is hallucinating at a Tyler Durden level? Or worst of all, what if she’s flat-out lying because reasons? Whannell tries to keep Adrian’s fate ambiguous to an extent, but (a) the trailers have clues and (b) honestly, in the current entertainment environment, what’s the likelihood of a film with the punchline “the woman was lying all along!” getting financed and booked on 3600 screens?
At first it’s all fun and games as Cecilia’s PTSD gives way to nonstop fright and/or deep paranoia. The camera follows her around but keeps her off-center, occasionally drifting off and directing our attention to empty corners and doorways. Is Adrian right in front of her and kept in-frame using magical infrared sensors? Or is the cameraman laughing at us? And/or possibly drunk?
Once her tension level is sufficiently ratcheted up to 11, the film pivots hard, and little practical jokes give way to pure menace.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Also on Team Cecilia is the great Aldis Hodge from TV’s Leverage as a family friend and police detective. Cecilia stays over at his place while she’s trying to piece her psyche back together with his encouragement. When matters go sideways, he’s got her back as long as no one tries to mess with his daughter (Storm Reid from A Wrinkle in Time). Because a good dad has priorities.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Perils and pitfalls for a woman in jeopardy include but aren’t limited to:
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Spurned evildoers who crave unreasonably disproportionate “payback”
- Patriarchal conspiracy
- Mad science in the wrong hands
- Moving in with one’s significant other a bit too quickly
- Last wills and testaments with suspiciously specific conditions
- Describing impossible events to others without realizing how loony you sound
- Poor password protection on one’s electronic devices
- The futility of spilling good coffee grounds all over the floor for any purpose besides divination
Advantages that help Cecilia live long enough to see the Moral of the Story:
- The importance of maintaining strong relationships with family and friends, especially smart and sympathetic ones
- Men who believe women when they insist someone’s done them wrong
- The steely resolve to stop listening to a liar who’s lied too many lying lies when he swears he’s changed, no really this time he means it yeah you betcha
- Creative problem-solving techniques that can circumvent the sometimes frustrating limitations of law enforcement when it comes to dealing with unprecedented acts of wizardry
- A spooky calm demeanor that takes over once one has been pushed too far over the edge
- The satisfaction of setting a really good trap and having a plan come together
Nitpicking? Quite a few surprises abound, but Adrian’s true fate isn’t that much of a mystery to anyone who’s seen the trailers or noticed the movie’s name. We as a society were willing to let Ralph Ellison call a book Invisible Man without offering up a single literally unseeable dude, but a film that promises a double-secret master of hiding, drawn from a long-standing legacy with certain baseline expectations, simply can not pull a fake-out on us. Despite some attempts at sleight-of-hand, a few developments are more predictable than others as the film inexorably barrels toward its showdown between evil male and goodly female. To an extent I’m pretty okay with that, though it means willing suspension of predicting the story arc until things truly do go off the rails.
As noted above, the movie science behind Adrian’s super-villain costume is kept minimal and under-explained as the audience is trusted to take it on faith that his toys do what the manufacturer claims without requiring a ten-page technobabble monologue to sell us on it. That said, I couldn’t help brainstorming questions about its water-resistance limits, how well it functions after taking various levels of physical damage, whether it comes one-size-fits-all so theoretically anyone could wear it, and so on. Sometimes I distract easily.
The movie earns bonus points for including a very good doggo, but unlike good doggos in other scary movies, said doggo is shockingly zero help against Our Villain. At most he’s set dressing at the request of someone who just really, really wanted a pet on set. Even that goofy cartoon dog from Call of the Wild wouldn’t done something useful to protect Cecilia from harm.
So what’s to like? In most Universal monster movies, the audience is wowed and scared by the titular monsters that show off their freakish appearances, rack up a body count, and saunter past other actors given zero charisma because they’re little more than ordinary cannon fodder. While this Invisible Man’s transgressions are largely committed on his behalf by a combination of CG artists and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? practical prop masters, his true form is revealed as an unnerving synthesis of pitch-black future-spandex and whirring gadgetry, distantly reminiscent of a brighter-toned Marvel Comics villain called the Ghost (much creepier than the version seen in Ant-Man). In the flesh, the monster doesn’t disappoint and will make a cool action figure if one hasn’t been made already.
But he isn’t the main attraction here. At times when he’s not physically on set and we’re left watching deserted backdrops out of a Paranormal Activity sequel, the driving force that holds our attention and gets us invested in seeing his wicked games ruined is Elisabeth Moss, once again rocking in a Blumhouse production. Her Cecilia starts from an already fragile emotional state, takes baby steps toward recovery, then begins to crumble as Adrian takes a hammer to her world piece by piece. Moss’ performance skitters up and down the harshest ends of the emotional spectrum as more pain is inflicted upon her than she thinks she can bear…and yet she bears it anyway, left with no choice until it’s time to stand up for herself and meet her ex at his level, extreme for extreme.
Moss is backed by a solid support system who are there for her when she can’t do it alone, who aren’t there to play the one-dimensional dummies of olde-tyme horror films. Sometimes Adrian’s ploys work on them; when things go awry and doubts pop up, their skepticism comes off as pretty understandable from their perspectives. The main cast is small, but that means more room for complex reactions from each of them, not to mention quite a bit of resourcefulness from the last combatants standing. And not just Aldis Hodge, though I root for him wherever possible.
The Invisible Man is effectively chilling in selective parcels at first. The last half-hour goes full-on gonzo, particularly in a hallway fight sequence (what is it about hallway fights in modern films and TV?) and in the final showdown, which assumes an unexpected form. Along the way, older fans may catch a few oblique nods to other versions (bandages! a spooky hat!) and should be satisfied with the chilling effects of this 21st-century update, assuming they’re not seeing too much of themselves in this unseen monster.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Invisible Man end credits, not even Russell Crowe popping over from The Mummy for a Dark Universe recruitment drive. It’s not hard to imagine the final events here leading to another story or two, but I’d rather not see this segue into team-ups with Dracula or the Wolfman.