The Invisible Man (2020) – Review

The Low-Down: H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man has captured the imaginations of readers for over a century and spawned multiple adaptations, among the best known being the 1933 Universal Pictures movie starring Claude Raines. Writer-director Leigh Whannell, the co-creator of the Saw franchise, brings a new version of this classic sci-fi horror tale to the big screen.  

The Story: Cecilia Kass’ (Elisabeth Moss) abusive husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a brilliant scientist in the field of optics. Cecilia has been plotting her escape from Adrian for months, finally succeeding with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and their childhood friend, police officer James Lanier (Aldis Hodge). Adrian apparently commits suicide, but Cecilia suspects he is faking his death and can turn himself invisible. When Cecilia tries to tell Emily and James about what’s happening, they do not believe her, with James worrying that Cecilia might harm his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). A desperate Cecilia must prove that her life is being controlled by this terrifying unseen force before the Invisible Man hurts her and those she loves.

The Good: Some classic Universal Monsters characters are harder to update to the present day than others, usually because of their basis in folklore and mythology. The Invisible Man lends itself well to a present-day reimagining because of its science fiction element. This version has little in common with the source material besides a man named Griffin who can turn invisible, but Whannell approaches the familiar premise from an interesting angle. He is a good genre filmmaker, as evidenced by 2018’s sci-fi action horror Upgrade. He plays up the tension, paranoia and suspense in a movie that touches on the omnipresent fears of surveillance and that draws parallels between horror movie monsters and domestic abusers. The Invisible Man is the right amount of clever – it puts enough of a spin on the well-worn idea, without straining too hard to be something you’ve never seen before. This is not a film with a huge budget, but Whannell makes good use of the resources available to him.

Elisabeth Moss puts in a thoroughly convincing central performance. We root for Cecilia as we see things spin out of control because we know that she is being tormented by an actual invisible man and that it isn’t all in her head, but the other characters don’t know this. Moss sells the deep anguish the character feels and gives the movie an emotional urgency. Her performance is reminiscent of the parts of Terminator 2: Judgement Day in which Sarah Connor is yelling at asylum orderlies who don’t believe her warnings of Judgement Day.

Aldis Hodge is a warm, reassuring and heroic presence, and it is genuinely frustrating when he suspects Cecilia of awful things she didn’t do, because Adrian has engineered it to look that way.

The Not-So-Good: It’s clear that Whannell and his crew took great pains to not make this a silly movie. Unfortunately, it seems like at least some silliness is unavoidable. There are some quality scares in this movie, but it’s hard not to chuckle at multiple scenes of a gun floating through the air or at characters being dragged across the room, pounding away at nothing with their fists. The movie is also slightly too long – Whannell pushes the suspense, but we all roughly know where it’s headed, so it seems like there are a few too many ominously-framed shots of empty rooms to emphasise their apparent emptiness. While the movie is not exploitative in its depiction of a domestic abuse survivor and is about how Cecilia wrests power back from her abuser, there are times when the movie feels a bit too much like a Lifetime channel movie of the week.

The Dark Universe splinters: The Mummy (2017) was meant to kickstart the Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe populated by classic Universal Monsters characters. The critical and commercial failure of that film threw a spanner into those works, which led to the planned Invisible Man movie starring Johnny Depp being scrapped. Somewhat confusingly, an unrelated movie called The Invisible Woman is also in development, with Elizabeth Banks starring and directing. A new Bride of Frankenstein film is in the works with John Krasinski attached, while Paul Feig is developing a project called Dark Army that is said to contain multiple Universal Monsters characters.

Recommended? Yes. This new take on the familiar story is largely tense and frightening, even if it takes a while before we get to the scares and the action.  

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