You wanna know how effective the scares were here? Thanks to this movie, if I’m ever in a room alone again, I’m going to look at empty couches and chairs very differently.
This science-fiction horror film was released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on February 28th, 2020, having been moved up two weeks. Made for the budget of $7 million, it managed to gross over $134.3 million at the global box office before moving to premium VOD due to the coronavirus. And yet, it has still managed to stay relatively popular at homes around the world. Not to mention, the film has garnered some of the best reviews of any film this year and has even been predicted by some outlets to make rounds whenever awards season comes.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, this is a modern adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel of the same name. Universal had originally approached David S. Goyer to write the script but departed after about 4 years of no serious development. It was then pitched as part of the studio’s “Dark Universe” franchise with Johnny Depp in the title role but scrapped all plans after the disappointment of 2017’s The Mummy. Producer Jason Blum instead decided to pursue the project as a standalone horror movie and hired Whannell for the job on the strength of his previous feature, Upgrade.
Elizabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, a young architect trapped in a violent and controlling relationship. With help from her sister and childhood friend, she escapes in the dead of night from her unstable boyfriend Adrian Griffin, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, a wealthy tech genius in the field of optics. Two weeks after running away and laying low in hiding, it is discovered that Adrian has apparently committed suicide and has left her with $5 million. However, Cecilia quickly becomes convinced that he faked his own death and has found a way to torment her invisibly, and desperately tries to find a way to prove her experience to others around her.
Leigh Whannell is someone who I’ve only become aware of recently, but thus far, I really like his approach to filmmaking. He wrote and starred in the first Saw movie, (The only good installment of the series, in my opinion) and also created the criminally overlooked sci-fi body horror Upgrade. The latter film, in particular, really showcased his ability to handle high-concept films with a relatively limited budget and squeeze believable performances out of his cast.
So when it was announced that he would be writing and directing a new take on this character with Elizabeth Moss, I was cautiously optimistic for it. I was still feeling the sour taste of the colossal failure of the “Dark Universe” a few years ago and was unsure if the studio could really recover and find a way to put these classic monsters into the modern era. But not only does The Invisible Man surpass my expectations as an interpretation of the iconic character, it’s a fantastic horror film on its own merits.
In hindsight, the idea of telling the story of this iconic character from another character’s perspective was a bit of genius on Whannell’s part. By rearranging the story and putting it into a MeToo context, we get to see a unique film about domestic abuse and the emotional consequences fallen upon the victim. The real horror of the story comes not from Adrian using his powers to wreak havoc on mankind at large but from causing so much torment for Celia and no one believing her.
It’s a huge testament to Whannell and Blumhouse that The Invisible Man brings a lot of specificity to this serious issue in order to avoid making broad statements about it. Celia is desperate to find a way to live life on her own terms for the first time in a long while, but her relationship with Adrian still haunts her (Both literally and figuratively) and not even those closest to her really understand her trauma. The analogy of people being reluctant to believe Celia’s story is infuriating and true to life, making me glad that the initial plans for the “Dark Universe” were completely scrapped.
Elizabeth Moss has always been an incredibly capable and versatile actress, and this role might be her best work yet. As Cecilia Kass, she’s absolutely riveting as a woman trying to regain her agency after being gaslighted and manipulated for such a long time. While she wants to come back into the larger world, she’s still deeply aware of the influence Adrian has over her, remarking, “He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.”
By her side for much of the film is Aldis Hodge as James Lanier, a San Francisco detective and Celia’s childhood friend. Even though he clearly cares about her and wants to protect her, he’s highly skeptical about her claims of Adrian still being alive and tormenting her. When the vicious mind games start involving him and his own daughter, he starts taking it more seriously, despite also believing Celia to be somewhat unstable.
Harriet Dyer also deserves to be mentioned as Emily, Celia’s headstrong and loving sister. Unlike James, she’s able to more clearly see the psychological hold that Adrian has over her and tries to understand her claims, even if they don’t sound plausible. You can see just from her subtle facial expressions the disgust and terror of having to witness her own flesh and blood survive through someone that monstrous.
The supporting cast is filled out by Storm Reid as James’ curious daughter trying to cheer Celia up, Michael Dorman as Adrian’s submissive brother and attorney representing his vast estate, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian Griffin himself. Jackson-Cohen only appears in a handful of scenes throughout the film, but he makes sure that his presence is known and felt. Every time he smiled, every time he opens his mouth, there’s just a horrifying feeling of what might happen.
And just from a filmmaking perspective, The Invisible Man showcases Leigh Whannell has a firm grasp on dynamic visual storytelling. Shot by Stefan Duscio, the cinematography is slick, controlled, and intensely atmospheric. For many sequences, the camera will sit still at the corner of the room when Celia or another character walk out. Sometimes, we see something moving around invisibly, other times, it’s just meant to bring out dread in the audience. And when the camera does start roving around in beautifully constructed long takes, it begins to feel like a character all its own.
The editing job by Andy Danny compliments this perfectly, splicing together shots into longer scenes. It plays a lot with the feeling of perspective, as there might be something we the audience see that no one else does and cuts between angles when needed. This is exemplified in the fantastic opening sequence, which sees Celia trying to quietly escape the house and the camera cuts between different shots just in case a sound might be set off. We’re watching every corner of the frame.
Rising star composer Benjamin Wallifisch gives us the instrumental film score here, and much like the film, it’s intense and utterly brilliant. The majority of tracks use a mixture of distorted electronic sounds to bring a sense of unease out of the viewer. They simultaneously sound like cries for help choked by vocoders and unseen forces punching you out of nowhere. It also hides subtle bits of strings and piano to bring up the inherently tragic elements of the story and even for moments of catharsis.
With a clear eye on the subject matter and a genuinely terrifying approach to its story, The Invisible Man is a hauntingly bleak portrayal of a truly disturbing monster. More stressful than fun to watch, Leigh Whannell has crafted one of the best and most inventive entries of the horror genre and further proves his mastery behind the camera. Anchored by a stunning lead performance from Elizabeth Moss, all parties involved make sure that you won’t forget this film any time soon.
If this is the route that the studio wants to go for their Universal Monster properties in the future, then I’m absolutely here for it. Whannell and Blumhouse knew exactly what they were doing here and I can’t wait to see anything else they make together down the road.