The Invisible Man (2020)
What You Can’t See Can Hurt You
What a difference a couple of years makes, hey?
Back in 2017, Universal debuted the mega-budget ‘horror’ blockbuster The Mummy, intending it to be the jumping-off point for a high concept, shared world reimagining of their old monster properties — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and so on. Budgeted at somewhere close to $200 million and starring none other than Last Movie Star Standing Tom Cruise, The Mummy was a statement of intent as much as a movie; The Dark Universe, as it was dubbed, was intended to go toe to toe with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe — Universal’s own ever-expanding pulp pantheon designed to keep the studio in clover for years to come.
It’s not actually a terrible idea; the Universal Monsters were the original shared universe, ever since 1944’s House of Frankenstein, and a sprawling, interlocking, modern-day pulp horror franchise is not without its appeal. Unfortunately, at that budget, you’re almost always going to get more action than horror as bean counters get concerned about bums on seats. Plus, it was clear that the franchise possibilities were more important to all concerned than anything else, and these days a Tom Cruise movie is a Tom Cruise movie first and foremost. So what we got was a vehicle for the Cruiser, a film that paid more attention to setting up sequel and spin-off possibilities than the story at hand, and a film that, while filled with spectacle and incident, clearly slipped out of the control of first time director Alex Kurtzman fairly early on in the proceedings.
End result? Universal lost 95 million dollars, and the much-ballyhooed, massively hyped Dark Universe — we were gonna get Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man! — was mothballed while the studio licked its wounds and tried to figure out what to do next.
The answer, of course, was to give Jason Blum and the Blumhouse team an at-bat with a much-reduced budget but an attendant greater flexibility. Blumhouse specialize in tight-budget, commercial horror fare and while not everything they fang out is a winner — their riff on Fantasy Island is currently taking a pasting, but hey, I didn’t mind it — they also give us stuff like The Purge (2013), Get Out (2017) and Happy Death Day (2017). A less high profile feature character was selected in the form of the Invisible Man, I suspect at least in part because most people couldn’t tell you the plot or core characteristics of the guy, who first came to transparent life in H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel and joined the Universal pantheon in James Whale’s 1933 film. Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell, one of the architects of the Saw franchise and fresh off the critical, if not commercial, success of the excellent Upgrade (2018), was given writing and directing duties, and a quick Sydney shoot at a modest budget of seven million dollars was undertaken. This was, by anyone’s measure, a very conservative bid for success.
Boy, did it pay off, though. The Invisible Man is absolutely brilliant.
Whannell makes the smart choice of putting us in the shoes of the victim rather than the villain, which is what Paul Verhoeven did in the last notable (kinda) adaptation to hit the big screen, Hollow Man (2000). Where Verhoeven’s film revels in the possibilities of being a superpowered voyeur, Whannell’s plays up the psychological terror of being subject to such attention, marrying that notion to the story of an abused woman, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) who flees her domineering husband, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), only to begin to suspect that he has followed her into her new life in a way that nobody other than she can detect.
Which is crazy, right? But that is the point; Whannell turns the very concept underpinning The Invisible Man into a potent metaphor of gaslighting and abuse. Adrian, we are told, has committed suicide, leaving Cecilia a large chunk of cash on the proviso that she never be arrested for a crime or be declared mentally incompetent — both of which are almost immediately on the cards, as inexplicable events start to occur and she feels the invisible hand of her abuser, metaphorically for now, on her shoulder. Her cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and her sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer), assure her that she’s imagining things, but events soon conspire to drive both of them away, and Cecilia is left alone, convinced of a truth that no one else believes, and forced to take matters into her own hands.
For victims of abuse, this is barely a metaphor; not being believed is the default response to claims of assault, even if that disbelief is couched in the kindest and most empathetic terms. The brilliance of The Invisible Man is the way it replicates the emotional toll of gaslighting — if you’re not familiar with the term, it’s being convinced you’re wrong about something you know to be true, generally as a tool of control and manipulation — nigh-perfectly. The film is genuinely harrowing; we stay exclusively locked on Cecilia’s experience of events, which means we’re with her as she becomes increasingly isolated and increasingly desperate for someone, anyone to believe her — that this is actually happening.
And, of course, it is — the movie gives us a suitable pseudo-scientific basis for all this invisible folderol, marrying the source novel’s conceit of Griffin as an expert in optics to modern notions of Musk-alike tech bro entrepreneurship. This is still a sci-fi horror flick, so we get the jump scares and the gore, all spot on. More impressive than those showcase moments is Whannell’s command of suspense, using pure filmmaking nous to tease the audience with the possibility of what might be in the frame right next to our increasingly rattled protagonist. Yes, the odd big special effects moment crops up, but The Invisible Man is at its most effective when it plays to the inherent promise of its title, Whannell and his team expertly guiding us to imagine the worst and most anxiety-inducing possibility.
It’s all just so damn near perfect — an alchemical marriage of source material and theme precisely mixed by a director at the top of his game, anchored by a superb turn by Moss. I almost wish it was a one-and-done; it’s such a tight, controlled, insistent little piece of sustained tension that hitching it to the demands of franchise-building seems cheap. Still, if this is the standard being set for Universal Monsters offerings going forward, the universe is in good hands.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson