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The Invisible Man (2020)

Posted March 2, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve already spilled a lot of ink on the subject of the Dark Universe fiasco. And I’m probably going to say a lot more about it, because it can’t possibly be overstated what a costly and embarrassing self-inflicted black eye that superfranchise investment was. Especially since it happened when the execs at Universal still hadn’t completely lived down the disaster of Van Helsing.

The execs at Universal have been pathetically desperate in trying to make their Movie Monster lineup relevant again, ever since Stephen Sommers found improbable success with the two Mummy films made twenty freaking years ago. And right from the jump, The Invisible Man (2020) shows conspicuous signals that the PTB may have finally — FINALLY — learned some valuable lessons.

To start with, they took Johnny Depp off the project. Yeah, for those who don’t remember, Universal was extremely proud of the fact that they had hired one of the most expensive, controversial, and increasingly unstable movie stars in Hollywood to play the goddamn Invisible Man. A character that — by definition! — meant that Depp would’ve collected a massive payday with top billing while barely spending any time onscreen or on set. This is the kind of sensible thinking that made the Dark Universe such an industry laughingstock.

Second, Universal co-produced the film with Blumhouse. That sends all sorts of messages, because billion-dollar tentpole blockbusters are not in the Blumhouse business model. This is the company that built an empire on horror movies that don’t typically gross much, but turn a profit because they’re made for even less.

Add all that to the fact that this is an R-rated movie with a release date right on the cusp of March — a month increasingly reserved for more experimental releases. All of this sends the clear message that Universal is done trying to make their movie monsters into four-quadrant crowd pleasers. No way is Universal trying to position this as the start of another MCU knockoff — hell, it’s an open question as to whether this movie can even sustain its own franchise, much less a superfranchise.

But perhaps most importantly of all, Universal apparently (read: hopefully) decided to take the bold step of making their Movie Monsters relevant by liberally adapting them to reflect modern fears. I know. What a concept.

In this latest iteration, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a wealthy scientific genius who might charitably be called “eccentric”, though perhaps “narcissistic sociopath” would be more accurate. But here’s the kicker: He’s not the protagonist. That would be his wife (Cecilia, played by Elizabeth Moss), who finally takes the step of leaving her abusive marriage, sneaking out in the dead of night for fear of what her asshole husband might do to her. He smashes a car window with his bare hands while chasing after her, by the way.

Cut to two weeks later. The good news is, Cecilia has found a temporary home with a police officer and his daughter (James and Sydney, respectively played by Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid). They might’ve been old friends, or maybe Cecilia met them through her sister — it’s unclear, I’m disappointed to say. Anyway, the bad news is that Cecilia is a paranoid wreck. She won’t leave the house, she’s terrified of any online technology, and she visibly jumps when anyone comes to the door. She doesn’t even want any friends or family coming by, for fear that Adrian could follow them to find her.

Then the news comes in that Adrian is dead.

The details are unclear, but we’re told for a certainty that Adrian Griffin is dead and cremated, and he’s left Cecilia $5 million in his will. On the condition that she can’t be charged with any crime, she can’t be ruled to be mentally incompetent, and so on. This is roughly the point when weird shit starts happening, and Cecilia has to convince everyone that Adrian’s still alive and messing with her and no she’s not just being paranoid.

I mean, it’s right there in the title. Even if we don’t know exactly how Adrian faked his death or turned himself invisible, we know what’s going on here. The question is whether Cecilia can figure it out in time and convince everyone else that it’s not just her trauma playing head games.

This movie comes to us from writer/director Leigh Wannell. That’s the same guy who made his name as a co-creator of the Saw franchise before making his directorial debut on the excellent and sadly underappreciated Upgrade. (A $16 million worldwide gross against a reported $3 million budget. Welcome to Blumhouse.) Having seen both of his movies so far, I’m here to tell you that for a horror filmmaker, he’s a hell of an action filmmaker.

Consider that we’re talking about fight scenes with an invisible man. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to stage that without coming off as some hokey bullshit that looks like the characters swiping at thin air or fighting with themselves. But then, thank God I’m not Leigh Whannell, because the fight scenes are phenomenal across the board. The effects are flawless, the camera moves are inspired, and the unseen assailant adds a superb layer of suspense. Of course it also helps that Whannell leans hard into the R-rating, delivering palpable blows and shots that really fucking hurt.

But then there’s the horror aspect. I don’t want to say it’s bad, necessarily — there are a lot of good scares and shocks in here, most especially when the film lulls us into a false sense of security and the Invisible Man strikes out of nowhere. But those all come later in the movie.

Early on, when the audience is still waiting for the Invisible Man to arrive already, the filmmakers use musical cues to let us know that he’s there. In theory, not a bad idea. In practice, the score is laughably overblown in the mix. The whole score is so aggressive and so simple that it badly damages all efforts at horror.

What compensates for all of that is the very nature of the beast. For all his faults, Adrian is way, way smarter than everybody else in the movie. He’s cunning, he’s patient, and he has zero conscience. There’s no telling what he’ll do, when he’ll do it, or who will get hurt along the way. Moreover, it’s not always easy to tell when Cecilia is genuinely making progress, or when she’s playing directly into her husband’s plans.

Then again, the Invisible Man is still just a man. He’s not super-strong, he’s not bulletproof, he can’t fly or walk through walls. For all his gadgets and intelligence, he’s still the same small and insecure egomaniac he always was, fallible and mortal like anyone else. That glimmer of hope is a central component of what powers the film, and it’s a strong implicit message about abusive partners in general.

Which brings me to another potential problem: Whannell is a male filmmaker taking on the story of a woman badly damaged by her abusive marriage. Moreover, it’s the story of a woman whom nobody believes, even when she’s accused of striking somebody who wasn’t even in arm’s reach at the time. (Seriously, what the fuck?)

To counter this, the filmmakers brought on Elizabeth Moss, whose leading role in “The Handmaid’s Tale” has made her a kind of unofficial mascot for the modern feminist movement. Between that and her recent cinematic output (Us is perhaps the most high-profile example), Moss has overtly made socially conscious media her brand for the past few years. Bringing her on gives the film a lot of credibility, in addition to a rock-solid leading performance that brings strength and vulnerability exactly where each are needed.

It’s a good thing that Moss’ performance is so strong, because the rest of the cast is pretty weak. Yes, the Invisible Man himself is a fantastic villain, but he’s also (obviously) a mostly offscreen presence. Though Oliver Jackson-Cohen is remarkable in the title role, he’s only really got one scene to work with. Likewise, Storm Reid is a wonderful young talent with charisma to burn, and she’s wasted on what’s basically the comic relief role. Aldis Hodge is another rock-solid supporting player, but the character doesn’t have much depth — it upset me that the James/Cecilia friendship is such a central plot point, yet we never learn the first thing about how they know each other. The weakest in the supporting cast is easily Harriet Dyer in the role of Cecilia’s sister. Dyer might be trying her best, but the character totally fails to register as anything more than a plot device. It certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers go to all manner of contrived lengths in getting Emily where she needs to be, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

The MVP of the supporting cast is unquestionably Michael Dorman, in the role of Tom Griffin, Adrian’s younger brother/lawyer/estate manager. On the one hand, Tom only ever thought that Cecilia was just another woman who only wanted Adrian for his money. On the other hand, he’s literally spent his entire life subjected to the kind of physical torment and emotional abuse that Cecilia had to endure throughout her marriage. He’s a true wild card, so capably played by Dorman that there’s no telling where his loyalty really lies or which way he’s going to go.

The Invisible Man (2020) is enjoyable overall, but it comes with some major caveats. Most of the supporting cast is pretty weak, you’ll have to swerve around some gaping logic holes, and god damn did Benjamin Wallfisch turn in a wretched score. Still, the action is amazing, Elizabeth Moss’ central performance is wonderful, and the choice to make the Invisible Man an allegory for an abusive husband was an inspired use of a monster that embodies the primal fear of being watched by some unseen force.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s great where it counts. Definitely check it out.