REVIEW: The Invisible Man [2020]

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • Rating: R | Runtime: 124 minutes
    Release Date: February 28th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Leigh Whannell
    Writer(s): Leigh Whannell / H.G. Wells (characters)

Surprise.


After the critical and financial debacle of Universal Studios’ attempted interconnected Dark Universe of “monsters” beginning with The Mummy, the decision to embrace a more independent mindset was inevitable. Considering his collaborations with James Wan (the Saw and Insidious franchises) utilized exactly that, it wasn’t shocking when newly placed producers Blumhouse reached out to Leigh Whannell to lead the charge. I don’t think it was his horror pedigree that earned him a meeting about reimagining H.G. WellsThe Invisible Man, though, since his last film Upgrade practically had an invisible man of its own. He unwittingly provided a sci-fi proof of concept for what it looked like when actors battled themselves in lieu of tangible enemies. Whannell already cracked the visual style. A story was soon to follow.

It’s this script that really shows why Whannell was perfect for the job because it isn’t afraid to take things in directions that put our present above Wells’ past. He found a way to both update the material as far as Griffin’s scientific expertise (his optics lab contains tech, prototypes, and an empty display case looming large rather than a chemistry set) and the approach to his inevitable villainy. Similar to the original story, the titular character here has already flirted with the line that separates mankind between the moral and immoral. Whannell doesn’t want to waste our time trying to project compassion onto Griffin when he’ll always end up being the monster. Why pretend otherwise when effort is better spent creating a worthwhile protagonist instead?

That’s where he borrows from James Whale‘s 1933 cinematic adaptation. He saw what screenwriter R.C. Sherriff did to inject some romance into Wells’ novel and recognized the result to be the problematic emblem of a bygone era it was. Flora Cranley was neither a heroine nor a legitimate link to Griffin’s past humanity regardless of the filmmakers’ hopes. She was but a prop—a possession used as a reason to solve the invisibility problem, a victim to gaslight into thinking her beau’s suffering was all her fault, and a plot device to provide the potential for love even when its target deserved nothing but contempt. Whannell has therefore taken Flora and flipped the character on its head to escape the patriarchal cage Sherriff constructed around her.

To do so meant giving her the reins by introducing this world through Cecilia Kass’ (Elisabeth Moss) fearful and determined eyes rather than her husband Adrian Griffin’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) smug entitlement. So we watch as her carefully laid plans to break free from his domineering and abusive grip unfold. We witness the suspense and anxiety her stealthy departure conjures, the crazed manic uncertainty of whether she’ll get away before he catches her, and the crippling panic that success brings with Cecilia in a constant state of looking over her shoulder, knowing she’ll never truly be safe. That’s why the news of Adrian’s suicide (with feigned “I couldn’t live without you” rhetoric she won’t let fool her) is such a relief. The nightmare might officially be over.

She knows it’s too good to be true, though. That Adrian would leave her five million dollars despite killing himself because she didn’t love him enough to talk about leaving (the lie told in his will) only makes Cecilia question reality more. But we know better. Thanks to Whannell’s refusal to play games as far as whether or not his lead is insane, we know those slow camera pans to an empty hallway possess more than air. It isn’t long before Adrian makes his presence known to his widow alone, wreaking havoc in ways that alienate her from every ally against him she had just two weeks prior. As they leave her side, Cecilia must figure out a way to expose him herself before it becomes too late.

The sister who drove the getaway car (Harriet Dyer‘s Emily) slams the door in Cecilia’s face. The best friend who housed her during the weeks she went into hiding post-escape (Aldis Hodge‘s James Lanier) can’t help but let his eyes lead him when she desperately needs his heart. And his teenage daughter (Storm Reid‘s Sydney) becomes the first casualty of Adrian’s vicious game to turn support into fright on a dime. Because we see it’s not Cecilia and witness objects floating in mid-air to reveal his presence, we’re able to appreciate her descent into despair. Every time she does something to expose Adrian is yet another memory to add to her rage when she’s saddled with the blame for his actions. It isn’t long before blood gets spilled.

Moss owns every second she’s on-screen from the moment she exits Adrian’s bed to her maniacal smile when leading him somewhere he cannot hide. The fight choreography (one knock-down, drag-out bout has her flying through the air and dragged across the floor as though someone is in the room with her) and special effects (refraction in rain and partial visibility by paint gives us the magic Whale was forced to avoid while Griffin’s suit becomes a historical callback to the fact Claude Rains had to wear a head-to-toe black velvet costume to achieve proto-green screen masking) are flawless, but they’re nothing but aesthetic bells and whistles without Moss giving them substantive purpose via her empathetic performance. Her Cecilia is digging herself out of a grave from frame one.

And we really don’t know how it will shake out. If Adrian has anything beyond a deranged psychopathy, it’s extreme intelligence. Whannell is therefore able to make certain that his antagonist always has an out. No one fakes his/her death without a way to come back to life, after all. So even though things might seem to have run their course, another twist or turn will remain on the horizon to shift the power dynamic and wrestle back control. Belief in Cecilia is rendered meaningless if it leads to the believer’s death and victory over her assailant is but an illusion if he’s forever playing a cruel game of gaslight Three-card Monte. So as long as her abuser is breathing, neither she nor her loved ones are safe.


photography:
[1] Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (from left) James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) and Sydney Lanier (Storm Reid) in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian Griffin in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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