The Invisible Man, 2020, 3 ¼ stars

See no evil

Invisible Man stirs suspense from thin air

Elisabeth Moss stars in The Invisible Man. (image copyright Universal Pictures / Blumhouse Productions)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, March 3, 2020

Sue me for political incorrectness, but I’ve grown weary of movie promotors who brag that their film exposes injustice, is socially relevant or captures the zeitgeist. I like politically powerful art just as much as the next guy, but the industry’s focus on Me Too, Time’s Up and similar movements has taken a cynical, pandering turn.

So I was concerned that The Invisible Man would be another opportunistic update of a classic tale. It isn’t. Instead, it’s an entirely new combination of science fiction, drama, suspense and horror – a rather violent one at that. And though it is a tad overlong and occasionally resorts to the tropes of that latter genre, it rises above most of the other, disappointing cinematic offerings of early 2020.

Perhaps my initial skepticism could have been avoided had the title been different, for this film has almost nothing in common with the H.G. Wells novel from 1897. Sleeping with the (Unseen) Enemy perhaps? Or, at the risk of embracing the in-your-face messaging I just excoriated, wouldn’t a title with “woman” have been more appropriate? After all, the main character, Cecilia, is played by the almost unbearably intense Elisabeth Moss, who possesses an uncanny ability to leap from ravishing to ravished in a single reel. She is the heart of this story, which combines themes of paranoia, mental illness, female empowerment and domestic abuse into a tale that – unlike Cecilia’s abusive boyfriend – never overstays its welcome.

Like the eponymous man, my plot summary will be invisible, suffice to say the story draws only inspiration (and the name “Griffin”) from Wells and nothing (sans a creepy, bandage-wrapped hospital patient) from the disappointingly campy 1933 film. (Sorry, James Whale. Hey, at least those old practical effects are still the cat’s (invisible) pajamas.) This means that the best and most faithful interpretation of Wells’ creation remains the six-part BBC miniseries from 1984.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, and writer of a couple of Saw films), this latest Invisible Man relies principally on its original story, not to mention Moss and some well-executed, wholly believable special effects. Solid support from Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton, Hidden Figures) as Cecilia’s friend, Harriet Dyer (Love Child TV series) as Cecilia’s sister and Michael Dorman as the invisible man’s brother lend credibility to what could have otherwise become a rather pedestrian – though still scary – production. In the title role, Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Raven) has a couple of chilling moments but is generally rather, well, invisible. (If only Benjamin Wallfisch’s score could have faded into the background a bit more.)

How you see Whannell’s Invisible Man is up to you. What I see is mostly a clever, twisty horror flick, not something that “transcended magic,” as Wells’ invisible man claimed to do. Perhaps you’ll see a film that captures the zeitgeist without bragging about its conquest. Or a film that exposes a brutality that, though ever present in our society, seems too often cloaked in invisibility. Or a character who, despite her literal opaqueness, is far less metaphorically visible than her invisible (rich and powerful) boyfriend.

For me, that is a bridge slightly too far. I hope you can forgive me. If you can’t, remember this other quote from Wells’ tale: “I never blame anyone. It’s quite out of fashion.”

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