Somehow fitting in perfectly with the #MeToo movement and the way many coming forward are victim shamed or utterly ignored, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man is not just a really great adaptation of the HG Wells novel of the same name – it’s a timely meditation on the way we react to other people’s trauma. Elisabeth Moss leads the film with a powerhouse performance. Meanwhile, Whannell expertly blends horror, science fiction, and action with current social issues to create one of the most suspenseful horror films in recent years. The Invisible Man delivers on virtually all fronts.
After orchestrating an extremely intricate escape from the over-controlling clutches of her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecilia (Moss) tries to recover from past traumas. She can barely make it outside without thinking she’s going to run into Adrian again. Two weeks after her escape, she finds out Adrian has died. Whatever bit of comfort she may find in knowing her abuser is no longer able to torment her is removed almost immediately as she begins to suspect he has faked his own death and concocted a way to torture her without anyone knowing. The Invisible Man doesn’t take the approach of a mystery film in any way, instead making sure the audience and Cecilia are on the same page at all times.
The plot isn’t so much involved with who the invisible man is, but instead whether anyone will ever believe Cecilia that her abuser is not dead. On top of that, the people around her have to suspend their disbelief even further and believe he’s created a piece of technology that allows him to be invisible and he’s decided to use it exclusively to ruin Cecilia’s life. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t twists in The Invisible Man. It’s just that there is no semblance of a twist in the first half of the film. Whannell instead takes his time ratcheting up the tension as Cecilia quickly realizes she has no chance of outsmarting an invisible predator who has excelled at controlling her for a long time without the handicap.
There are two very terrifying concepts at the heart of Whannell’s screenplay. The first: what happens when a master manipulator hellbent on controlling someone is beyond the reach of the law? The second: what happens when no one believes the abused is being abused? A logical evolution in the Invisible Man adaptation, the screenplay fires on all cylinders by stripping back the invisibility to a metaphor as opposed to other adaptations where invisibility seems to make characters explore themselves or take advantage of their new abilities. It becomes a plot device first and a metaphor second, but in Whannell’s adaptation they go hand-in-hand. The entire first half of the film is watching the two terrifying concepts at the core of the screenplay escalate until things finally reach a breaking point. At that point, the film has secured audiences in for the ride and there are no stops in sight.
The white-knuckle thrill ride that The Invisible Man becomes is when the film feels more in line with Whannell’s previous film, Upgrade. The camera moves in a similar way to follow the gunplay and fistfights, keeping the set pieces relatively minimal in design but within them resides a variety of different action beats and a full exploration of what is possible with invisibility. A smart, intricately-designed thriller in so many ways, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are some fantastic special effects at play to keep everything looking sleek and scary. It’s sometimes a little hokey, but only really noticeable if you’ve checked out of the moment-to-moment tension briefly.
“An impressive adaptation of a novel that was already cemented in cinematic history with James Whale’s 1933 version, this is the kind of modern take that feels right at home with today’s horror landscape.”
Moss’s performance makes it near-impossible to escape the deluge of tension, though. The camera will fixate on the entirety of the room to craft scares out of who may or may not be there, but it’s Moss who takes things to another level. Her performance has the unenviable job of trying to balance some of the more outrageous genre moments with a poignant, horrifying tale of a woman trapped in a waking nightmare. Bridging the suspense-ridden first half of the film with the amplified stakes of the second half, she carries it with a nervous energy that’s about ready to explode at any point.
Getting through the first half of the film certainly isn’t a chore, but it’s not intended to be a pleasant experience. Having no one believe Cecilia for large portions of the film is painful to watch and it rarely gets better. Seen with a large audience, it’s the payoff that makes all that pain a little bit easier to swallow. Ultimately though, the film tries to convey empathy for a situation far too common in today’s society. To do so, it refuses to let up on the suspense until it can’t be helped any more. Then it’s just a matter of watching how far Whannell is willing to take the concept to bring it to its conclusion.
That ending and everything that precedes it is what will leave a lasting impression for most, taking things to a logical extreme and giving those moments of reprieve needed to make the audience eat out of the film’s hand. It’s more important that The Invisible Man doesn’t hold its punches in the beginning. Providing a raw performance strung together with nerves and trauma, Moss gives another stellar showcase of her talents that keep everything cohesive even when the movie makes a hard right turn. An impressive adaptation of a novel that was already cemented in cinematic history with James Whale’s 1933 version, this is the kind of modern take that feels right at home with today’s horror landscape.