Synopsis – When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
My Take – With their initial plans of an interconnected series of monster films, eagerly touted as the Dark Universe, scrapped, following the massive critical and commercial failure of 2017’s The Mummy, Universal immediately shifted gears.
Dropping their blockbusters based plans in favor of pairing up with Blumhouse Productions, the two decided to rejuvenate one of their most popular characters from Universal‘s horror library in the form of a small budgeted standalone filmmaker-driven vehicle ($7 million), here by effectively shutting down the originally announced Johnny Depp led venture.
Bringing in writer-director Leigh Whannell, best known for spearheading the Saw and Insidious horror franchises and the much underrated Upgrade (2018), to helm, this loose update of the 1933 adaptation of the 1897 H.G. Wells novel, in the end, has ingeniously resulted in a nail-biting thriller that has more on its mind than providing simple thrills.
The biggest change being the shift of perspective from the mad scientist to the terrified victim he’s stalking, hereby effectively turning the film into a horror in the best sense of the word, and liberating the titular monster from the moral ambivalence of the old Universal antihero archetype we have seen in so many different versions of the character. And with an actress of Elisabeth Moss‘ caliber in the lead role, who anchors the film with an intense emotional, yet nuanced, performance, the film gains a psychological realism that I am sure no one expected.
The story follows Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss), who despite a life containing wealth and privilege in a seaside home has been living in fear mainly due to her abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an entrepreneur and a very successful scientist in the field of Optics. Once she finally gains the courage to break free, with help of her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), Cecelia makes for a daring escape at the middle night, leaving Adrian fuming.
Now hiding at the home of their childhood friend, James Lanie (Aldis Hodge), a police officer, and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecelia remains traumatized, and too afraid to even leave the house. That is until, two weeks later, they receive news that Adrian has committed suicide and has inexplicably left her several million dollars in his will, which to be handled by his younger brother Tom (Michael Dorman), with the contingency that she not be deemed mentally unsound.
However, when she finally seems to be setting down and move on with her life, Cecelia quickly notices strange things happening around her, and senses a feeling of being watched by an unseen presence. Despite expressing her concerns that Adrian maybe alive and exacting revenge on her, everyone ignore her and when things begin to escalate, Cecilia is the one who starts to look more and more unstable as the tormenting continues and her life spins out of control.
As Cecelia gets pushed to the brink of madness, as much by not be believed as being stalked, director Whannell gives the suspense set pieces plenty of room to breathe and take on a paranoid flavor. Where so many would-be franchises have failed by focusing too much on setting up sequels, here, the film plays squarely to its strength as a strong, character driven film. The film is the perfect example of how to do a film of this sort as it is very clever in how it is paced and allows for the suspense to build without relying on many of the standard horror film staples.
The film is also highly atmospheric and beautifully shot in such a way that the audience begins to share Cecelia’s claustrophobic, increasingly paranoid inner state. Director Whannell uses one of the great visual horror devices, by letting you wonder what’s lurking around the edges of the screen. But because the villain isn’t visible to anyone, not even the characters in the film, it’s extra creepy, and extra effective, and director Whannell, being a master of setting up jump scares, using that skill to great effect.
He uses the camera to heighten the audience’s own tension, observing the empty spaces surrounding Cecilia, emphasizing the silence and potential for fear. She imagines Adrian watching her silently from some empty corner of a room and the camera seems to affirm her worst fears, suggesting a presence through odd angles and pans across the space. One scene in particular is utterly unexpected and shocking, shifting the tone and raising the stakes dramatically to set up the final act.
He expertly utilizes sci-fi trappings to take gas lighting to a whole new extreme, as the film depicts first-hand the anxieties faced by many modern-day survivors of abuse. As Cecilia stresses to those around her that her genius scientist ex has become invisible, we are left conflicted by knowing the truth of her words but also the understanding that, without hard evidence, it’s hard to accept her story at face value.
By making a conscious decision to focus on Cecelia’s point of view, the film becomes a powerful portrayal of a woman recovering from prolonged domestic abuse and the associated psychological trauma. There are many moments in this vicious film that you will not see coming and I was actually surprised by the amount of brutality which serves the overall story well.
However, by doing this the film automatically never stretches out the other characters, especially Adrian. While we are told he is brilliant, highly manipulative and controlling, we never get to see that, apart from his violent outburst at the start of the film when he catches up to Cecelia just as she drives off with her sister. Keeping with Cecelia’s perspective and her psychological journey throughout the film, when we do finally meet him towards the end, he comes off as more moody than menacing.
Nevertheless, the major credit for the success of the film goes to Elizabeth Moss, who gives a phenomenally dedicated performance and sheds emotion throughout. Here, she physically embodies each and every emotion incredibly plausibly. Indeed, more than anything else, it’s Moss‘s performance that captivates and accentuates the unfolding terror.
While, Oliver Jackson Cohen pulled down by a weak character, the rest of the cast consisting of Aldis Hodge, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, and Storm Reid manage to stay afloat. On the whole, ‘The Invisible Man‘ is a clever and compelling remake that manages to be gripping, exciting and genuinely scary.
Directed – Leigh Whannell
Rated – R
Run Time – 124 minutes