Written and directed by Leigh Whannell
It seems obligatory to note The Invisible Man was born of failure; it is the small-budget phoenix to rise from the ashes of a much more ambitious attempt by Universal to revive their classic monsters for modern times, mostly by Feigifying them in ways that were not always well-calibrated to capitalize on their appeal. This was their so-called "Dark Universe," and it was an experiment that collapsed just one film in, with 2015's The Mummy. (More correctly, it collapsed two films in, but the number of people who have just plum forgot that 2014's Dracula Untold ever even existed speaks for itself.) I can't say that this gives me the shadenfreude it seems to offer others, and my tendency towards a certain compassion for the unwanted things of this world compels me to say that, no, those movies are not, as has sometimes been reported, total shit—why, not only is Dracula Untold intermittently not bad, The Mummy is even intermittently good!—and yet it's hard to argue that, when it came time to put this new generation of Universal Monsters together, this Dark Universe did not receive the reward it had earned.
Even so, ever since this particular Invisible Man was announced I had to remind myself not to be underwhelmed. The basic idea here was to hand off the "property" to another studio (though it's worth noting that by no means does Universal own any rights to adapt H.G. Wells' 1897 novel, The Invisible Man, which in any event this Invisible Man does not claim to do), and the intent was to narrow the concept down, way down, to fit snugly into the new Blumhouse style of Get Out-esque social horror tininess. And boy is it ever tiny, with writer-director, Wan associate, and Saw auteur Leigh Whannell eschewing the original Invisible Man's megalomaniacal attempt to conquer Great Britain in favor of a premise that is neither more nor less than that which is contained in the logline, "psycho ex uses invisibility to bother woman." In pursuit of this premise, Whannell wrote more-or-less the exact same screenplay that anybody of basic decency and sensitivity could have come up with themselves, if they too had been given the task to make an Invisible Man movie that cost no more than $7 million, revolved around a domestic abuse metaphor, and had to begin principal photography within forty-eight hours of starting their first draft.
On the plus side, just delivering that metaphor with any decency and sensitivity at all brings Invisible Man right up to the doorstep of good already, and, at least in a few, very narrow ways—ways, I'm afraid, that have almost nothing to do with a ramshackle plot that only ever gets more ramshackle as it goes along—it really can be a genuinely smart little horror movie. Counter-intuitively, maybe the single best thing about it is that Whannell's take on The Invisible Man fails to resemble James Whale's Invisible Man, let alone Wells' novel, in any way whatsoever (well, obviously, beyond the participation of an invisible man in it); and so, happily enough, there's never any pressing need, either while watching it or while thinking about it later, to directly compare it to one of the Golden Age of Hollywood's most intoxicating spectacles other than to state the basic, incontestable fact that it's probably always going to be more fun to listen to Claude Rains cackle at fools for 71 minutes than it is to witness 125 minutes of exhausting sexual violence and gaslighting. But then, on the other hand, the actual Gaslight is probably more fun than Invisible Man 2020 too, and it's also shorter (even the long version of Gaslight is shorter); and both versions of Gaslight make more sense.
We begin less in the middle of things than at the end, in that Invisible Man is the final chapter of a long and harrowing saga of abuse, one that you are expected to recognize the basic shape of going in, and it starts with its heroine, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), executing what is clearly a long-gestating plan to escape the clutches of her partner, Adrian Griffin (a seldom-seen, occasionally-heard Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who's no Claude Raines), a Palo Alto inventor-billionaire specializing in radical optical technologies. That's only important later, because what's important right this second is the desperate paranoia that despite her best-laid plans—drugging him, blinding the cameras—any misstep could wake the man and bring his wrath down upon her tenfold. And indeed, she does just barely make it out. She does, though, finding safe haven first with her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), and then on a longer-term basis with SFPD detective James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), since Cecilia is certain that she could never be safe with anyone that Adrian knew. Barely able to leave James's house, let alone put a new life together, it looks like it'll be a long road for Cecilia to make it back to the world, but then she gets a piece of good news for once: Adrian, it seems, is dead.
He, of course, is not, but he's faked his death well enough that his will gets put through probate, courtesy his lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman), who informs Cecilia it gets even better, since Adrian has left her some millions of dollars. For some reason, Cecilia does not immediately decamp to her sister's, but I guess she's grown to like James and Sydney (this is the first pang of an arbitrary script, and it also becomes apparent that this screenplay only didn't have Cecilia and Adrian married because Whannell is dimly aware of how community property works, and counter-intuitively it's somewhat annoying that modest thought was put into this aspect of it, of all things, when so much else wound up tossed off). Anyway, Adrian's generous bequest is conditional on the usual stuff, like not being charged with a crime, or thrown in a mental asylum, which is easier said than done when, well, your psycho ex has become invisible.
Which sums up the first and arguably more effective hour of The Invisible Man, as a phantasmal presence makes itself known to Cecilia but no one else, letting her know that she is not free, and systematically knocking her support structure out from under her with calculated acts of aggression. It works exceptionally well as a metaphor, literalizing the lingering trauma of the traumatized, both with its invisible enemy that won't let go and by inviting us to occupy Cecilia's head through Moss's nerve-wracked performance and a framing of scenes that keeps insisting that, contrary to all appearances, there is definitely somebody else in the shot. It maybe works even better as horror qua horror, through pretty much the exact same mechanisms, with an unseen menace that we can't know for certain is always present, but have to assume is, and a camera that anxiously can't take its gaze away from the negative space where it (and Cecilia) is certain her pursuer must be. It also has some fantastic jump scares, and while it escalates extremely suddenly, the way it escalates is horror film perfection, so matter-of-fact in presentation that it leaves you in the precise same position as Cecilia, holding a bloody knife and largely unable to process how it got there. It's no art film despite some perverse attempts by critics to turn it into one, but as a director, Whannell always uses the right tools for his job.
As a screenwriter, less so, and Invisible Man starts breaking down intellectually by the halfway point, if not beforehand. Cecilia recognizes quite rapidly what's really happening, and, unfortunately, more-or-less plays entirely into Adrian's hands in ways a better-written character probably would not. (Invisible Man is blatantly playing with the current idea, believe women, but it doesn't do the hashtag many favors considering that her friends already did that, which is why they helped her escape and gave her a free room. They just don't believe she's being stalked by a dead man in an invisibility suit.) Inevitably marked as crazy, this is where the pretensions of Invisible Man start to fall flat—one is absolutely convinced there's a really fascinating film inside this material that lets you determine for yourself whether you believe Cecilia, or at least lets you stew in the ambiguities for a while—and it's also where it starts to fall apart as a screenwriting construct, since while it's reasonable enough for the film to ask you to accept Adrian as a monomaniacal movie monster willing to effectively end his own life in order to continue to ruin Cecilia's, Invisible Man decides he needs to have an endgame, and gets itself completely lost in the details of a plan that makes less and less sense, has less and less emotional purity, and is less and less interesting, the more complex it gets.
Alternatively, Adrian's inconsistency is a reflection of abuser logic, which would maybe be more satisfactory if The Invisible Man were an essay and not a motion picture. Ultimately, it's dipshit villainy, and confoundingly capricious; Adrian's master plan seems to change from scene to scene and gives rise to at least one new logistical objection with practically every cut. (Christ, at a certain point, one starts to wonder if Whannell's Invisible Man is a trained ninja on top of what is blatantly some intermittent superstrength.)
It's understandable why the film makes these unsupported jumps, and it's easy to sympathize to some degree—I don't begrudge the need of any Invisible Man to indulge in gnarly invisible spectacle, and, here and there, Whannell really does bring that spectacle, mixing action and horror in entertaining ways—but he does it with the least justification possible, while also hoping nobody noticed that the second half of his movie remakes the middle half of Candyman in an almost beat-for-beat fashion. He bet smartly, I suppose, since nobody fucking did, likely because the signposted homage to Terminator 2: Judgment Day distracted them. Of course, that gambit might be even crazier, because you can survive a comparison to Candyman, but surviving a comparison to Cameron, when you have seven million dollars and a lousy villain to spend it on, just isn't going to happen, even on the T2 Lite level Whannell would obviously prefer it to be judged on.
Invisible Man's last hour just invites quibble after quibble, and they continually eat away at a strong effort at well-put-together shlock horror with an inordinately intelligent merger of form and function. (I think I actually like the finale, but the utter bullshit twist it takes to get there messes up the clean lines of the thriller it had been before—even at its least credible, it always kept its momentum going—and the cherry on top is that it also degrades the tiny bit of interesting nuance that it had managed, against all odds, to wring out of its scenario.) Still, what it does well, it does really well: Stefan Duscio's cinematography maintains a hushed chilliness; production designer Alex Holmes obviously had a lot of fun with Adrian's evil mansion, an austere glasshouse that feels like the world's most beautiful prison; the special effects are, for seven million bucks, Goddamn great; and Moss is fairly excellent—that it keeps working at all is mostly a tribute to her—and while it's a simple part that asks nothing of her that she's not done before (she's made a cottage industry of being the gendered victim in such things), there's an air of tragic awareness to her character, when she finally gets to ask the empty (?) space next to her, "Why me?", and she suspects the answer isn't flattering. It could have been better, but it certainly does what it set out to do, and I suppose it's nice that the last movie I'll ever get to see in theaters was at least good.
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