Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 27th, 2020
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Back in 2017, the folks at Universal Pictures tried to launch their own cinematic universe (the current lifeblood of the entertainment industry) with the Tom Cruise-starring reboot The Mummy. Unwatchable muddle that it was – and a domestic flop, though it made some money abroad – no immediate additional entries in the potential new series followed. Ever since the 1930s, the studio has owned the cinematic rights to properties such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and other milestones of early horror, among them The Invisible Man, as well. Will this new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel prove a more viable departure point for future films than Universal’s 2017 misfire? It’s certainly a better movie, though not without significant flaws.
Anchored by a compelling central performance from lead Elisabeth Moss (The Kitchen) and solid mise-en-scène by writer/director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade), The Invisible Man jettisons virtually every plot element from its source material to invent an original tale of spousal abuse masquerading as a violent thriller. At times gripping, at others ridiculous, the film retains enough sense of pacing throughout to make it a watchable diversion, even if some story twists make little sense or feel cheap. And with a concluding long-held close-up of its star, I would not be surprised were a sequel in the planning – sure to be entitled “The Invisible Woman” – should this film make money.
The opening nighttime sequence is perhaps the strongest, where we meet Moss’s Cecilia – or “C,” as her friends call her – in bed with her sleeping husband, whom she has drugged with Diazepam. Sneaking out from under his encircling arm, she moves carefully about their high-tech mansion atop a sea-facing cliff, turning a security camera on bed so she will know if he moves. Gradually, she approaches the exit, where the couple’s dog stares at her with forlorn eyes, leading her to accidentally bump into one of the cars in the garage, setting off a very loud alarm. Off she goes, fleet of foot into the woods, eventually arriving at a road where her sister Emily is due to pick her up. Is Adrian, her controlling abuser, close behind after all that racket? She hopes not …
With great economy of camera and sound, Wannell moves us from that chilling opener to a few weeks later, with C recovering at the home of friend James (Aldis Hodge, Clemency) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time), a welcome reprieve from the horrors of a terrifying marriage. Soon, Emily (Harriet Dyer, Killing Ground) arrives with news of Adrian’s suicide. C thinks it might be too good to be true, but since her now ostensibly deceased hubby was rich beyond belief, at least there’s an upside, since she’s in the will. But then there’s the how of his riches to consider, along with his psychopathy: Adrian made his fortune in “optical tech” and vowed to never let C go. So when crazy things start to happen, including objects moving on their own and/or disappearing, C fears the worst. She may not be wrong.
Sure enough, given the title, invisibility plays a role in the proceedings. The sci-fi details, updated for our modern world to something we can almost believe in, are superbly handled by Wannell. It’s the surrounding dramatic maelstrom that begins to falter in the second half, with character motivations questionable and plot developments gruesome. Wannell’s Upgrade was very bloody, as well, yet somehow retained a light touch with its bloodshed; here, the carnage is fairly dispiriting, especially during one very nasty bit in a restaurant involving a slit throat. As messy and silly as The Invisible Man gets, however, it still works as a powerful parable of an abuse victim striking back and claiming her own. Go Team Moss!