Premise: 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.
Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of one of Universal’s iconic monsters for the #MeToo era has its highs and lows. The Invisible Man takes the classic monster and makes him into a predatory, controlling, and abusive narcissistic sociopath. It’s a far cry from the mad scientist searching for a cure to his invisibility in the 1933 James Whale film. That’s not a bad thing, however, as Whannell creates a menacing and intrusive villain within the framework of a highly effective thriller. Unfortunately, the film ultimately falters in its depiction of the aftermath of abuse to the point where it becomes a bit reckless in its handling of the material.
The Invisible Man is a thriller for the #MeToo era but it doesn’t necessarily have anything profound to say about it. In fact, at times it feels as though Whannell and company are completely unaware of some of the deeper damage inflicted by emotional and physical abuse. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) escapes her tormentor in the opening scene of the film and then we are treated to a jump to two weeks later. She’s staying with her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and working up the courage to undo the mental damage that’s been done.
One of the problems is the 180 that occurs when Cecilia learns her abuser Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has died. Her mood brightens and her life begins to turn around, especially when Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman) reveals she’s been bequeathed a fortune by Adrian’s will. It’s a blatant oversimplification of the complexities of abuse and makes The Invisible Man feel reckless in its storytelling. Rather than examine the implications of an abuser’s attempt to control his victim through his will, the fine print of the will is used as a plot mechanic for later in the film.
Lip service is paid to Adrian’s behavior and control of Cecilia, but it’s simply not enough in contrast to the more conventional thriller storytelling. Making The Invisible Man into a thriller is all well and good. But creating a main character who is a victim of abuse, especially today, needs more weight thrown behind it. Once Cecilia escapes Adrian in the film’s opening sequence, the movie forces the audience to play catch up as Cecilia explains how deep and terrible the abuse was. The onus is on the viewer to appreciate the mental state of the the heroine until the film outright tells us about the abuse and control. It’s sloppy storytelling that creates a brief and unnecessary gulf between audience and protagonist early in the film. It also breaks one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking: show, don’t tell.
Due to the conceit of the film, there is very little setup for Adrian as a character aside from secondhand accounts from Cecilia (and later, his brother). The titular villain being unseen and underdeveloped presents some issues with the plot. The film could have used this as an opportunity to comment on the uphill battle it takes for some abuse victims to be heard and believed. Unfortunately, The Invisible Man doesn’t seem interested in making that kind of commentary. There are moments here and there where the Invisible Man works to isolate Cecilia from those closest to her. Those moments work well, but they seem too inconsequential to the greater narrative. More importantly, they don’t seem to be saying anything aside from, “Yes, this is a thing that happens.”
As talented as Leigh Whannell is, the feeling that The Invisible Man is coming too much from a male perspective is inescapable. There’s a third act reveal that lacks the nuance (or general perspective) that a female voice could have provided. Instead of confronting the PTSD of the main character, the film veers into an almost melodramatic plot development that severely lacks any kind of profound or even relevant statement or commentary.
The film then doubles down on all of this by pitting our protagonist and antagonist in a final confrontation that feels like an attempt at social commentary. However, like the rest of the movie, The Invisible Man squanders the opportunity to be profound. Instead of giving our heroine a nuanced and empowering resolution to her traumatic experience, the film plays to the cheap seats and goes for a more conventional and expected ending. It’s maddening that the opportunity for commentary that would have been socially relevant and important is forsaken in favor of a more conventional thriller conclusion.
Despite the disappointment inherent within The Invisible Man‘s lack of social commentary, the thriller aspects of the film are really well done. There is one particular turn that ushers us into the third act that was so unexpected and harrowing that it was truly jaw-dropping in the literal definition of the term. Aside from that, the movie utilizes jump scares effectively and ratchets up the tension gradually. Although the first act’s tension is too reminiscent of the type of scares popularized in the Paranormal Activity series, the transition from haunted house movie to predatory monster movie means there’s enough variety in the scares and scare tactics to hold the audience’s attention.
Although The Invisible Man is not without many missteps in its storytelling and attempts (or lack thereof) to be socially relevant, Leigh Whannell has delivered an effective and scary thriller. This update of an iconic Universal monster is very different in tone and execution from its 1933 counterpart. However, the film stands on its own and could very well be the first step toward a successful Universal Monsters revival with boundless possibilities within it. If this truly is the birth of a new and successful Universal Monsters franchise, one can only hope future installments have more to say.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat, Pizza Roll.