By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell
Setting their updated classic monsters and madmen free from the strictures of the shared Dark Universe turns out to be the best decision Universal could have made, and getting Blumhouse involved and Leigh Whannell to take the reins of THE INVISIBLE MAN proves to be the other best decision. Following up his knockout UPGRADE, Whannell delivers another tech-infused yet human-scaled, consistently tense genre piece anchored by a terrific lead performance.
The opening-titles shot announces this INVISIBLE MAN’s updating of classic traditions: Waves crash against forbidding cliffs, but the “castle” atop them is not a Gothic pile but a sleek, shiny mansion. There’s no credit for original author H.G. Wells, as the only detail that’s been preserved is the villain’s surname, and as opposed to the antagonist being driven mad by the agent of his invisibility (as in James Whale’s still-terrific 1933 film), here he’s a longtime victimizer using his science as a weapon. Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a narcissistic, possessive monster—but we only find out the particulars after his long-suffering wife Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) sneaks out of that expansive home late at night in a lengthy, wordless, gnawingly suspenseful opening sequence that establishes the situation through telling details, precise camerawork and cutting and Moss’ expressive reactions.
After that setpiece comes to a screamer of a conclusion, we rejoin Cecilia two weeks later, hiding out in the home of her policeman friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Afraid to leave the house, in such a paranoid state that she’s freaked out by a passing jogger when she makes it as far as the mailbox, she receives what seems at first like good news from Adrian’s brother/attorney Tom (Michael Dorman): Adrian has committed suicide, and left Cecilia a large inheritance. It sounds too good to be true for Cecilia, and she soon becomes convinced that it is. She’s sure that Adrian, a genius at optics technology, has figured out a way to make himself unseeable and begun stalking her, invading James’ house and the room where she sleeps. Nobody believes her, but we know she’s right, of course, and Whannell deftly plays on our knowledge that we’re watching a movie called THE INVISIBLE MAN. Several scenes in the first hour tease our expectations in the way PARANORMAL ACTIVITY originally did, as Whannell holds long, static takes, and we scan the frame nervously looking for some small action revealing Adrian’s presence, jumping when it happens.
In updating the time-honored premise, Whannell has reconceived it into a potent metaphor for current concerns about toxic male behavior. Adrian becomes a literalization of the specter of abuse that can haunt its survivors even after they physically escape their abusers, impacting their ability to carry on with their lives and engendering guilt about bringing their tormentors into the lives of their loved ones. Cecilia goes through all this trauma and more over the course of THE INVISIBLE MAN, yet as portrayed by Moss, there’s an inner grit and resilience to her that makes it clear there’s going to be a point where she’ll stop being a victim. Moss fully commits to both Cecilia’s psychological agony and her determination to end it, and creates one of the great horror heroines of the 21st century.
She’s certainly got heavy stakes against her, and Whannell keeps the suspense mounting via both punchy filmmaking and a few major story turns that change the game in ways we don’t see coming. Right up to the movie’s end, he trusts the audience to make certain connections that allow the surprises to really land, and while the plot hinges on Adrian’s scientific wizardry, the tech stuff and visual effects remain low-key, emphasized just enough to keep us engaged with the people it’s affecting. The CGI supervised by Jonathan Dearing gives a spooky cast to Adrian for the inevitable moments when he becomes a little bit visible, and all the craftspeople, including cinematographer Stefan Duscio and production designer Alex Holmes, successfully ground just-a-bit-in-the-future concepts in an identifiable real world, backed by Benjamin Wallfisch’s extremely loud but still effective score.
THE INVISIBLE MAN is not completely airtight—there’s a why-doesn’t-she-pick-up-the-gun? moment in a key sequence, and a couple of visual inconsistencies in the invisible man’s presentation. These are just tiny lapses, though, in a film that confirms Whannell as a major talent in the current genre scene, and suggests great possibilities for Universal’s future revivals of its enduring, frightening characters.