2020 | rated R | starring Elizabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Harriet Dyer, Storm Reid | directed by Leigh Whannell | 2 hrs 4 mins |
There is a moment early in The Invisible Man when Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), who is so broken by trauma that she can’t leave the house, makes a step outside to the mailbox and as she does the movie drops out the audio and replacing it with a muted underwater sound to effectively put us in the claustrophobic headspace of the character. It’s one of several extra visual and audio flourishes that screenwriter/director Leigh Whannell (a long way from being the writer of Saw) adds to the film that pushes it past standard genre fare and into a richer and more immersive experience. This is still The Invisible Man but Whannell’s adaptation of HG Wells’ sci-fi classic is that rare wonderful adaptation that is so smart, inventive and a part of the zeitgeist that it imprints its stamp on the material and becomes almost unrecognizable as a remake.
The first sequence is a taught set piece of Cecilia executing an elaborate plan to do what horror fans constantly ask, to get the hell out of there, in a daring 3 am escape from her controlling boyfriend Adrien, a San Francisco tech millionaire with a smart house and a basement full of cybernetic inventions. With the help of her sister (Harriet Dyer), she takes refuge in the home of a cop friend (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid). Cecilia soon learns that Adrien has killed himself without her and is inheriting millions of his estate, but cannot shake the feeling that he’s still around and sabotaging her new life. There is a version of this adaptation that maybe isn’t called “The Invisible Man” and leans further into the tease that Adrien may be a ghost, but Whannell is playing a different game here, more interested in Cecilia’s survivor’s journey and using it’s villain to create a state of constant paranoia.
The inspired, low-tech result of the collapse of the “Dark Universe” – Universal’s plan to update their 30s era monster movies into big budget, interconnected adventure films, hastened by the disastrous performance of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy (2017) – this Invisible Man barnstorms into 2020 with a renewed energy for the psychopathic monster that Claude Raines made famous in 1933. Confession: James Whale’s original The Invisible Man is my favorite of that era of Universal monster movies. It is a perfect dark-and-stormy night film centered around a monster that isn’t a misunderstood outsider, but a scientist driven to madness and murder by God-like power. Smarly, Whannell shatters that story down to the cellular level and rebuilds a new on, teasing out kernels of inspiration and turning his version into a full-throated modern thriller about domestic violence and the lingering paranoia of an abusive relationship. The possibilities of the power of invisibility can be grand (Raines massacred a train full of people, after all), but Whannell has come up with a tightly-wound piece that sharpens its focus down to a manageable cat-and-mouse game between two characters at war with each other.
Where another invisible man movie, Paul Verhoven’s misbegotten Hollow Man, went the exploitation route, Whannell’s is a more thoughtful horror film grounded in a shattering performance from Elizabeth Moss (who conveys internalized torment across her face like nobody else) and a tone-perfect approach to the mechanics of horror with atmosphere and booming music over jump scares. This thing is a cracker-jack, tension machine from start to finish, even pulling off a handful of moments of nearly unbearable, crawl-out-of-your-seat suspense. Whannell takes a few pages from frequent collaborator James Wan, framing the shot and sliding the camera around like a curious eye to focus on a seemingly empty section of the room and letting our imagination take over. He pulls out a lot of tools from a haunted house film and – quite frankly – a Lifetime Channel stalker film, but frontloading the knowledge that we aren’t dealing with a ghost, but a tech-savvy millionaire stalker boyfriend, radically changes the lens of every set piece.
We can talk about The Invisible Man as an effective movie in it’s own right. We can also talk about The Invisible Man as a masterclass study in how to put together a remake. In an age when shot-by-shot remakes roll out every month, Whannell knocks this out of the park, a perfect blend of source material reverence and wholesale creative reinvention. Dare I say this, The Invisible Man joins the nostalgic classic examples of David Chronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing and more recently the Rise of the Planet of the Apes trilogy and Luca Gadagnino’s Suspiria, as mighty examples for how radically an auteur can reinterpret the material for it’s time and place and make it their own.
Even with the film so intimately feeling it’s way through trauma recovery, it can’t be underplayed how much fun the movie also is. The Invisible Man is still very much a genre film and a first rate one, successfully balancing Cecilia’s arc with the more absurdist sci-fi thrills without sacrificing either. Whannell keeps Adrien absent most of the running time, slowly building the scope of his power and madness. If there is a knock on the movie it is that in a movie this tightly written, that drops this many bread crumbs, it can give the audience an idea of exactly what’s going to happen. But even within that framework, Whannell is hitting the beats just right. Whether it’s Cecilia’s use of household items to track down Adrien or the invisible monster’s rampage through a hospital, the action pieces are knockouts. It’s a sure sign that the movie is working when fights scenes with characters swatting at the air doesn’t come off as silly.
Movies that come out this yearly in the year are rarely this good. A seamless blend of sci-fi, horror, stalker/slasher film and moody psychological thriller, The Invisible Man is a refreshing unicorn of a remake that springboards off the source material and into inventive new directions. It switches up the POV of our protagonist and updates the monster for high-tech times. All balanced on the back of another terrific performance from Elizabeth Moss. It’s a pulse-pounder of ideas, a driving score, balls-out performances, a blood-boiling monster and a nimble camera all crafted by someone who knows his way around a horror movie, able to give a slasher movie moments that powerfully resonate. It sent me out of the theater on a buzzy high.