Excellently acted and stylishly directed, this update to HG Wells’ classic is timely and terrifying.
The Invisible Man, the novel, taps something primal – the fear of the unseen. Leaven that with “man arrogantly meddling with terrible powers” themes and you have a horror story for the ages. Unfortunately, I never found it be all that great; it owes so much to giants like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that it never felt all that original. The film version from 1933, with its indelible imagery and manic performance from Claude Rains does more to stand out but still feels very much like other Universal Monster films.
2020’s The Invisible Man takes some of those universal themes from the novel and adds in a very specific and timely set of fears to really leave an indelible mark.
The Invisible Man (2020).
Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) escapes her controlling and abusive boyfriend, Adrien Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen.) Hiding out with an old family friend who happens to be a police detective, Kass becomes increasingly afraid Adrien will find her. When she receives notice that Adrien committed suicide, she cannot accept that he really is gone. Soon, she starts to experience odd phenomena and becomes convinced that Adrien used his research in optics to render himself invisible.
Something Old, Something New.
2020’s Invisible Man re imagines HG Wells’ story from the perspective of the victim, not the perpetrator. There are many deft call-backs to elements in the novel, as well as some really smart uses of imagery or ideas that were added by the 1933 original and its sequels.
That being said, this Invisible Man brings a whole new context to the story of an immoral scientist getting his kicks from committing felonies. Some of this is the update to current times. The mechanism of the invisibility (a suit, not a potion) delves into modern paranoia about creeping surveillance states. By embedding our perspective with Cecilia, writer and director Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Upgrade) wades into the current of #MeToo anger and fear.
Terror by Gaslight.
Thanks to a smart script and a tremendous performance by Elizabeth Moss, The Invisible Man wrestles the spotlight away from Griffin and puts it on his victim. The whole point of this framing is that you don’t see Griffin. He’s omnipresent in his absence. A privileged, white male, he crushes those around him with just the brute fact of his existence.
This refocusing works to excellent effect. First, the film oozes tension. Every single shot has you wondering where Adrien is. Even when he says or does nothing, you (and our protagonist) just know he could be right there in front of you.
Second, The Invisible Man works as a perfect metaphor for the pervasive problem of male violence against women. Cecilia is rarely believed, even by family and friends. Every explanation except the one given by the victim is given credence over her experience. Much like with her character in The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss can only survive by the performative acts of subservience From the first scene, we see that Cecilia must self censor every single action and word. She’s doubly victimized.
Ripped from the Headline.
The Invisible Man is a terrific film. On just a technical level, it’s one of the most gripping horror thrillers I’ve watched in a long while. Whannell knows when to draw out the tension and when to strike suddenly. The cinematography is rock solid. The score fits like a tailored glove. For a two hour movie, I was shocked at how often the film shook off my expectations and did something novel and exciting.
On a deeper level, The Invisible Man represents the horror monster most appropriate to our time. For the 1 in 6 women in America who have suffered sexual violence, Adrien Griffin is all too real a menace. When half of all women murdered in the world die from violence by an intimate partner or family member, Adrien Griffin is not an abstract threat. He’s terrifying in his omnipresence. And just like The Invisible Man, too many people claim that they can’t see him.