The Invisible Man (2020), Re-Inventing a Cultural Icon

Adapting The Invisible Man was always going to be a difficult job, despite the success of the original 1933 film and H.G. Wells’s story: typically there’s less room in modern cinema for “Monster” films in the same way there was in Universal’s heyday. I know that this film started as a planned part of Universal’s shared “dark universe” but that idea was ultimately shelved after the critical and commercial failing of The Mummy (2017). I’m very glad that the film went ahead as a stand-alone film, especially with someone like Leigh Whannell helming the project as writer and director. I didn’t realise it until after I saw the film but Whannell is partially responsible for a lot of the horror films I spent a lot of my adolescence watching! Films like Saw, Dead Silence, and the first two Insidious films, were some that I watched frequently as a teenager and definitely developed my love for contemporary horror in their own way.

In a stroke of genius, Whannell readapts the story of the Invisible Man into a story of abuse as told from the victim’s perspective, and how even after leaving an abusive relationship the terror and fear can still affect the victims. From the very start of the film, the mood is set; the cold architecture and design of the house that Elizabeth Moss’s character, Cee,  attempts to escape from creates a sense of isolation; from the harsh corners and the minimal aesthetic of the house, all the way to the literal walls surrounding the complex, we can sense the fear of her character. This opening sequence already captures the fear and tension that continues throughout the film, and by opening in such a way is a bold move that pays off by constantly keeping the viewer on edge, while also sprinkling important details throughout the sequence that come into play later on. This constant state of fear and dread continues throughout the film with minimal respite, especially once the titular invisible man is present. This gimmick of having the antagonist possibly being present at all times really enhances the horror in this film, because, like Elizabeth Moss’s character, we’re never really sure where he is, or if he is even there, it allows for the horror to be continuously present, never giving any room for “safe” scenes, and this plays perfectly into the underlying themes of abuse and really drives home the message of the film. 

As expected, Elizabeth Moss is absolutely fantastic in the lead role. I’ve been a big fan of Moss since her days as Peggy in Mad Men, I must admit I haven’t seen all of her critically acclaimed roles so I can’t speak definitively, but her performance in this is easily my favourite that I’ve seen of hers. Throughout the film she’s hitting all the notes that she needs too, perfectly conveying the emotional turmoil and just absolute terror that her character is going through and the descent into distress. It’s hard to pick certain scenes as specific examples, because she’s always on top form, but if I had too; the whole opening sequence (as I mentioned previously), the dinner scene with her sister (played by Harriet Dyer), and the final scene which caps off the whole film in a brilliant way. Alongside Moss, the supporting cast does a great job playing off of Moss’s terror. The aforementioned Dyer, Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid (who play the Father/Daughter combo that takes Cee into their home after she escapes) all do a great job of playing a confused, but comforting presence for Cee. Once again bringing it back to the themes of abuse; as much as these surrounding characters want to help and understand what Cee is going through, there are limits to both their understanding and extent that they can help. And this is again what why I really like Whannell’s script, because these limits happen both literally, in that they don’t understand or believe that Adrian could be stalking Cee, but also in terms of these characters having to put their own well-being when Cee (or when they presume to be Cee) lashes out. Whannell incorporates these real-life discussions and issues surrounding the complex nature of abuse and trauma, in a genuine way, into this science-fiction story of a man who can turn invisible. It seems almost ridiculous to write these words, and in a positive way, but it really is pulled off well and with actual care and sensitivity to the subject matter at hand. 

The film definitely has some issues, the whole first half of the film keeps the question of what is happening purposefully ambiguous, and while there are some great moments after the reality of the situation is revealed, it just feels more like a generic cat-&-mouse action film. The film still does these elements well, but when it was in the more ambiguous territory the film really shined, but it loses some of this in the second half. This becomes especially egregious in the climax, where the film devolves into an action set-piece, which while framed and shot nicely, feels like an underwhelming conclusion to the dread and suspense that had been built throughout the film. While it was a good addition to see Cee as a threat rather than just a damsel in distress, it feels like an awkward way to end the story. I understand why they did it, but it feels abrasive juxtaposition from the slow, tense drama of the rest of the film. 

There’s no denying that Whannell breathes new life into this classic story, and the feminist twist is a great touch, rather than opting for the more traditional voyeuristic narrative the base story lends itself too naturally. But I can’t say the film fully sticks the landing for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but I still greatly appreciate what Whannell and his team are trying to do. Ultimately the film is beautifully shot, with the framing being composed really well. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score pairs with the film wonderfully, adding all the necessary tension and atmosphere as required, and Andy Canny’s editing is superb at adding to the constant state of dread. Regardless of my problems with this film, I cannot deny that this film is a great showing for all involved. 

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