'The Invisible Man': Film Review

A good start to Universal's revamped monsters franchise.
2/28/2020

Elisabeth Moss headlines a contemporary spin on the eponymous H.G. Wells novel and 1933 sci-fi/horror film.

This is not your father’s or, for that matter, grandfather’s The Invisible Man, even though it marks the launch of Universal’s revived attempt to seriously refresh and refashion its 1930s/'40s horror lineup for the modern age. Rather, enterprising writer-director Leigh Whannell (writer of Saw and Insidious and director of Insidious: Chapter 3) has imaginatively gone in a different direction by meeting the requirements of the title both literally and figuratively. At the same time, the movie stakes a claim for new mystery-horror territory worthy of a talent like Elisabeth Moss, who amplifies the qualities of the script with a top-shelf woman-in-severe-jeopardy performance. 

This serves as a good start to the studio’s approach to re-mining its archives for franchise material, even if it’s unclear whether or not the rot of Tom Cruise’s 2017 The Mummy can ever be forgotten entirely.

The cage imprisoning damsel in distress Cecilia Kass (Moss) is a modern high-tech version of a mad scientist’s haunted house, a sleek, luxurious, art-festooned billionaire’s mansion on a cliff rigged with no end of electronic security and surveillance systems. Alprazolam is no longer doing the trick to keep her anxiety and depression in check, so a desperate escape seems like her only chance to get away from maximally controlling billionaire boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen); on a dark and stormy night, she just barely manages it.

Heading to nearby San Francisco (although the film was shot in Australia), Cecilia counts on her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) for some support and is temporarily welcomed into the home of longtime friend and cop James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Things continue to look up after Adrian is officially declared dead — by apparent suicide — and his surviving brother (Michael Dorman) informs Cecilia that she’s been left $5 million in the will.

But the weather can change quickly in San Francisco, and so it does for Cecilia, who can’t blame her disorientation entirely on her meds. In short order, a lot of her stuff goes missing, she’s ceaselessly drowsy and, despite her support system, she feels terribly vulnerable. It doesn’t take long before the evidence seems incontrovertible: Adrian is still alive and up to no good. And, to top it off, he’s figured out a way to be invisible.

What’s promising about Whannell’s yarn at this point is that he’s spent a good deal more time encouraging the viewer to get close to Cecilia and her little support group than he has in pushing genre buttons. Moss, Hodge, Reid and Dyer are all open, inviting actors who earn our investment in their emotions and dilemmas. When the big reveals and melodramatic moments arrive, they seem mildly out of their element in a drama that feels more rooted in the characters’ emotions and thoughts than in creating shocks of varying intensity. 

Bit by bit, however, Whannell attentively cranks up the tension, and his principal vehicle for that is Cecilia, whose moments of lucidity and positive intent become increasingly dominated by degrees of disorientation and general out-of-it-ness in ways that remind of some Hitchcock heroines, notably Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. The writer-director well knows how to pace and space his revelations and jolts, how much to show and how much to withhold, and he pulls off a very fine action set-piece of Cecilia being attacked and thrown this way and that around the house by an unseen assailant.  

Unsurprisingly, things go from bad to worse for the protagonist as the obsessed and disruptive Adrian astutely judges when to make life difficult for someone he allegedly cares, or cared, about. By the time the film begins approaching the two-hour point, the feeling sets in that perhaps Whannell is stretching his conceit a bit too far for its own good. But it’s hard to deny his ingenuity and flair with genre tropes and keeping his audience somewhere approaching the edge of its collective seat. 

Placing a performer as adept and resourceful as Moss at the center of things gives a piece like this a good running start; as stressed, and distressed, as Cecilia is most of the time, Moss provides a core of inner strength that invites investment in her abilities and, ultimately, belief in her survival. Hodge endows his single father/cop character with an easygoing confidence, Reid is a lively teen presence and Dyer conveys some welcome rough edges as the observant sister.

Production designer Alex Holmes and costume designer Emily Seresin are expressively attentive to the socio-economic status of their assorted characters, while Benjamin Wallfisch makes a strong contribution with his muscular score.

The Invisible Man was clearly made on a budget, but when you place first importance on script and actors, viewers will feel it and not come out just remembering the scary parts. It’s not clear where a sequel to this would lead, but if Moss is on board the filmmakers will already be ahead of the game.

Production companies: Blumhouse, Goalpost Productions
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell, screen story by Whannell
Producers: Jason Blum, Kylie du Fresne
Executive producers: Leigh Whannell, Couper Samuelson, Beatriz Sequeira, Jeanette Volturno, Rosemary Blight, Ben Grant
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Alex Holmes
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Editor: Andy Canny
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting: Terri Taylor, Sarah Domeier Lindo, Nikki Barrett

Rated R, 110 minutes