3.5 out of 5 stars.
Monster movies have always been compelling because, as far from reality as they may appear on the surface, we see reflections of the good and the bad in humanity in their stories. This is especially apparent in the new version of “The Invisible Man,” directed by Leigh Whannell and based on the book by H.G. Wells and the subsequent film series produced by Universal beginning in the 1930s.
The film opens on Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). This opening sequence is largely wordless, but there’s no question as to what’s going on: Cecilia sneaks around her boyfriend’s—wealthy optics engineer Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)—sprawling house by the sea, disabling alarms, hastily dressing, gathering a suitcase that she already had packed. She is escaping from an abusive relationship.
Two weeks later, a traumatized Cecilia, staying with her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), learns from her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) that Adrian has killed himself, and left Cecelia $5 million in his will. Cecilia gradually starts to feel more at peace, until she starts having some strange experiences. She becomes convinced that Adrian is still alive and is torturing her, using some new technology he’s developed to become invisible.
Shifting the focus of this horror thriller from the monster to an abuse victim is a brilliant move that makes material that could have felt derivative come off as fresh and timely. The film doesn’t just detail the emotional trauma and recovery Cecilia went through immediately following her leaving Adrian, but throughout the movie shows the myriad ways that women can be manipulated by men; it’s a concept that’s about as terrifying as the fact that there’s an invisible madman running around. A lot of the film is so successful thanks to Moss’s performance. Her face is incredibly expressive, and she effortlessly shifts from terrified to terrifying as the film progresses. And while the audience is let on to the presence of the invisible man, the other characters outside of Cecilia are not, and we feel her frustration in being unable to convince anyone else that she isn’t going insane.
Directed Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio also presented the film in a way that maximizes the tension. Frequently, in the first half of the film the camera remains still, fixed on a tableau of a room and allowing things to move within the space. In this way, we notice when a knife lifts into the air, or a breeze blows a curtain when there’s no one near it. Sometimes, the camera pans away from the character on screen over to another—seemingly empty—part of the room, then back to the character. The audience may not see anything suspicious happen, but this camera movement alerts us to the presence of someone else in the room. The first half of the film steadily builds tension like this, leaving the audience on edge as we wait for something big to inevitably happen.
Once the something big does happen, though, the film gets a bit campy and less interesting and scary. The story is still enough to hold the viewer’s attention, thanks to Moss and the curiosity that has already been built up surrounding the invisible man, but it eventually becomes a little too action packed. The story also goes on longer that it needs to, with a final sequence that is mostly satisfying (it shows the growth Cecilia has gone through throughout the film and gives her a chance to confront her abuser) but also feel like it simultaneously ties everything up too nicely while also leaving the audience with questions about the future.
“The Invisible Man” was originally planned as part of Universal’s now-extinct Dark Universe series; thank goodness it was allowed to be its own movie. It’s a solid standalone film that doesn’t need a sequel or other continuation. Invisibility may seem like an outlandish concept, but like most great monster movies, it uses that as a mirror to reflect an important real life issue back at us.
Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated R.