In an era of large-scale Hollywood reboots that too often collapse into a cesspool of critical disdain and overwhelming disappointment, writer and director Leigh Whannell offers a sophisticated adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic novel “The Invisible Man.”
Subverting the novel’s omniscient narrator, Whannell highlights the perspective of the domestically abused victim, Cecilia “Cee” Kass, masterfully played by Elisabeth Moss. It is through the lens of Moss’s traumatized gaze that the slow-burn psychological thriller gradually escalates, from the heroine’s suffocating isolation to the third act’s explosive violence. At a time when male predators are finally being held accountable as a result of the #MeToo movement, Whannell’s film is a timely remake that explores a woman’s fears and the trauma she endures from a relentless male abuser.
The film opens with the ominous sound of waves crashing against the shore before the shot cuts to the bedroom of a modernistic seaside mansion. Lying in bed, Cecilia carefully removes a possessive arm slung over her body that belongs to Adrian Griffin, her sociopathic, affluent optics pioneer boyfriend played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. She proceeds to tiptoe stealthily away. The suspenseful beginning shows how her fearful escape has long been a premeditated one. In the background, the outline of Adrian remains a slumbering threat that the audience immediately learns to fear as he soon wakes and charges toward his escapee, slamming his fist into the window of her getaway vehicle driven by Emily, Cecilia’s sister, played by Harriet Dyer, as it speeds away.
After her successful escape, Cecilia stays at the house of James Lanier, her close friend and police officer, played by Aldis Hodge, and spends time with his daughter, Sydney, played by Storm Reid. Though Cecilia now leads a normal life away from Adrian, she is still paranoid and traumatized. Soon, Emily visits her with shocking news — Adrian is dead.
His sudden, apparent suicide perplexes Cecilia, bringing back a flood of memories of their tumultuous relationship. To Emily and James, she recounts Adrian’s absolute control of her life, from selecting her attire to restricting her mobility, then finally, to psychological manipulation. Despite news of his grisly end, Cecilia’s intuition tells her that Adrian would not give up so easily. Indeed, it is only the beginning of her torment.
Before long, Cecilia’s life begins to unravel. From doors opening on their own to a pan of cheery breakfast set ablaze to other well-timed jump scares, odd occurrences take place. Cecilia knows that there could only be one perpetrator — Adrian, who has faked his own death and found a way to become invisible. Yet, her voice, one of a mentally strained victim of domestic violence, is neglected. To others, Cecilia has grown increasingly unhinged as Adrian proceeds to gaslight her ruthlessly. As her sanity becomes questionable, Cecilia once again suffers the oppressive loneliness she faced in the start of the film. Only this time, she has learned that running away is not an option. Instead, she must confront her abuser.
A New York Times’ “Critic’s Pick,” “The Invisible Man” was praised for its subversion of the original material’s sci-fi horror conceit with an updated theme of domestic terror. Previous generic reboots of H.G. Wells’ novel include Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 “Hollow Man,” which provided an unnuanced slasher take on the story, with the typical devices of male voyeurism and sexual violence.
In the familiar territory of horror, Whannell, co-writer of the “Saw” and “Insidious” series, demonstrates finesse in his screenplay and direction. Some truly maniacal moments would jolt the unsuspecting viewer from his or her seat, and one could never look at a kitchen knife the same way. Composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s nerve-wracking score, a Hitchcockian homage mixed with sinister-sounding electronics and synths, envelops the audience, filling them with a sense of dread for what’s to come.
Moss shines in an unsettling performance that anchors the film throughout — giving her character, and the mounting horror she faces, a grounded sense of reality through her compelling expressions of fear, grief and paranoia.
“The Invisible Man” was not envisioned like this at first, however. The film was once a big-budget project designated to take part in Universal Studios’ shared cinematic universe of monsters called the Dark Universe. Johnny Depp would star as the titular character. Fortunately, such a fate was avoided after the 2017 reboot of “The Mummy” crashed and burned. Whannell and Blumhouse Productions were called in, and the rest was history. Topping the box office on its first weekend, “The Invisible Man,” which had a budget of $7 million, gathered a worldwide total of $98.3 million as of March 8 this year. The finely crafted film has become a commercial and critical success and a riposte to the trend of perfunctory reboots incurring big losses.