It would be easy to write off Leigh Whannell’s adaptation of “The Invisible Man.” This was a movie the trailers undersold in a dire mis-marketing. A modern monster movie with #MeToo underpinnings has the potential for potency and depth but also the potential for tedium—easy to lean on, hard to master. Whannell has a reputation as a workman, known for several of the “Saw” movies and the recent “Upgrade.” This “Invisible Man” is something of a minor miracle – a tight, thrilling, horrifying piece of work that surprises relentlessly and effectively with a muddy ambiguity thought long dead in the modern cinematic medium.
Cecilia (played by the excellent, deeply empathetic Elisabeth Moss) escapes from her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy sociopath who, over the course of their relationship, had her terrified of her own shadow. After several weeks living with longtime friend and police officer James (Aldis Hodge, a standout), she is beginning to come out of her shell until she learns that Adrian is dead and has left her several million under the condition that she doesn’t commit a crime or is ruled mentally incompetent. She begins to suffer strange experiences and comes to believe that Adrian might still be alive and following her.
This is not a by-the-book remake. The only similarity this shares with the Wells novel is the prominence of a genius named Griffin who works in optics and develops the ability to become invisible. This apparently is not part of the Dark Universe – the attempt from Universal several years ago to form a Marvel-esque shared universe based off of old monster movies, an effort that culminated with the spectacular failure of the Tom Cruise-led “The Mummy” in 2017. But, if producer Blumhouse wished to reboot the Dark Universe, it is a concept that could have a future through movies like this.
What makes “The Invisible Man” such a blast to watch is how keen it is to surprise. It starts out horrifying – Cecilia is tortured by this specter and cannot find any support, and she is not believed. It then moves into what initially feels like an ending. It’s still exciting but more conventional, although its surprises are not done. The movie is over two hours and earns its length with aplomb—it’s a movie worth going into blind. The movie comes in waves, and by the end the true horror of where Adrian’s antagonism has taken Cecilia takes a moment to truly set in.
A standout is the musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch, with its droning inciting anxiety at the movie’s most critical junctures. Whannell’s direction takes no artistic indulgences, but with the credibility he has carefully amassed, he could have gotten away with some flashy choices. This is one of Moss’ best turns – considering her already colorful resume, this is not faint praise. Aldis Hodge offers great representation offering a man of color who is an attentive father and a loving and patient friend to Cecilia. James is the film’s moral compass, and Hodge lends this the needed gravitas.
There are a few too many jump scares – it’s the Blumhouse brand and they’re clearly going to keep doing it – but, alas, they’re just as lackluster as they always have been. The true flaws are minimal. This is one of the best movies of 2020 – an ambiguous, complicated peak that is far better than it has any right to be.