It’s funny to think that just a few years ago, Universal was prepping its much-talked-about “Dark Universe,” a series of films where Universal’s classic monsters would exist in a shared universe. Upon announcing the universe, the studio also revealed that Johnny Depp was set to play The Invisible Man. However, when the franchise’s first film, The Mummy, ended up failing critically, Universal put the brakes on the entire series, instead opting to use the classic monster characters in smaller, standalone films, partnering with Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions to do so. With Depp dropping out, Blum brought in Upgrade director Leigh Whannell, cast Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (in the titular role), and the new Invisible Man film was set for production.
Instead of producing a full-on remake of the 1933’s The Invisible Man, Whannell and co have crafted a much more grounded, terrifying, and unsettling story about women living in an abusive relationship, and the aftermath of the horrific circumstances. Whannell is able to take the cinematic threads of the 1933 classic, and weave them into a story that manages to blend together various genres, and reimagines what being a “monster” means. This is not a story that would’ve worked in a blockbuster setting with the Invisible Man as the main character; and thank god the Dark Universe is over, because what we got instead is a masterclass in building tension, and an enthralling story about overcoming abuse.
The Invisible Man follows Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), an architect who is trapped in an abusive relationship with her tech-genius boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After finally escaping his grasp with the help of her sister, and being protected by their childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), Cecilia learns that Adrian has killed himself, making it seem like she’s finally free of him. But all is not as it seems, as Cecilia soon discovers that Adrian may not be dead, and has found a way to turn himself invisible, all in a sadistic attempt to abuse her further, and keep her under his control.
While the title of the film suggests otherwise, 2020’s The Invisible Man smartly takes the focus away from terrifying monster, and puts the spotlight on its leading woman. By making Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia the focal point of the story, The Invisible Man manages to weave in basic aspects of its source material, and layer it with the urgent themes of today. There is such a real sense of terror that Adrian brings to Cecilia’s life, that you feel uncomfortable at times with what you’re seeing on screen. From the opening scene, we see Cecilia tip toe her way through the house, slowly realizing that this is an escape attempt. This is where she’s at in her life, and it’s disturbing. When the Invisible Man makes an appearance, the story becomes even more anxiety-inducing, because that’s the kind of monster Adrian is. Not everything has to be seen with the naked eye. Thanks to Whannell’s stunning direction, we see Adrian manipulate Cecilia and those around her to question their perception of reality, and bring them right under his control. The trauma that Cecilia carries rings true for so many people, and its her fight to bring her abuser to justice that remains the most important part of this story.
This, in part, is why The Invisible Man is such a powerful piece of storytelling and would never have worked as a blockbuster. Whannell uses horror to provoke an emotional and cathartic reaction out of the characters, and the audience. In order to tackle such an important and emotional issue, Whannell zeroes in on the fear abuse creates, as it’s an emotion that all of us have felt at some point. But the key is to not let that fear take over. On screen, the viewer can face their fear, and as the story goes on, we realize that we are able to overcome said fears, anxieties, heartache, and pain. That fear has been manifested in this story, but watching it play out in a controlled environment can demonstrate the strength we need to carry on. Within this grounded, visceral tale, Moss’ Cecilia never gives up on overcoming her abuser, nor does she give up on being free of him. This is potent and liberating storytelling at its finest.
Elisabeth Moss has proven herself to be one of the best actors working today, and The Invisible Man is yet another showcase for the range she possesses. There is a rawness to Cecilia that is fleshed out beautifully, as we watch this woman struggle to hold on to her own sanity. She carries all the emotional weight of the film on her shoulders to the point where it is impossible to NOT buy into horrifying reality. This is, without a doubt, one of her best performances, and it is both empowering and emotionally remarkable. As for our titular monster, Oliver Jackson-Cohen makes the most out of a mostly faceless role, and it’s clear that he was the right person for the job. With The Invisible Man being just that, invisible, it is up to Jackson-Cohen to instill fear into audiences with physical acting and his voice. Upon seeing Adrian as his invisible alter-ego, there is such a brutal atmosphere around him. From the way he carries himself to the way he tilts his head, it’s unsettling and is sure to raise anxiety in audiences.
Apologies for this review being so late, but I can say, that after watching this film a total of three times now, The Invisible Man blew me away. With Leigh Whannell directing, this film is a technical marvel, utilizing the camera so brilliantly to get audiences anxiety to just the right height before letting it all crash at the most unexpected moment. Our paranoia is what truly makes this film so great. It didn’t need a $70 million or $100 million budget to look and sound great. On a small budget, Whannell delivered one of the most pulse-pounding, emotionally shattering, and yet incredibly empowering sci-fi/horror stories in recent memory. Add in a terrific performance from Elisabeth Moss, and Universal is officially back on track with their monster movie revival series.