In the glut of Hollywood reboots, remakes and sequels, Leigh Whannell’s new take on “The Invisible Man” comes along and makes a good case for why remakes can work. There has been numerous takes on H.G. Wells’ seminal 1897 novel from the slavish to the esoteric, the period to the contemporary, and the deadly serious to the highly comical.
Whannell’s take works by shifting the perspective of the script and positioning the titular character as a specific kind of antagonist rather than a noble or mad protagonist. He asks “what would a man in contemporary times if he were invisible? Why would a man want to be invisible?”. He then goes further, asking: “in a world of technological advancement and the chase for a scientific leading edge, what would a brilliant, ruthless and sociopathic Silicon Valley tech genius do with such overwhelming power?”
The film begins with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) making a harrowing and tense escape from partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian, even as he sleeps, reverberates with violent intent. After making her dash and escaping his bloody clutches, Cecilia seeks haven with long-time friends (Aldis Hodge’s James and Storm Reid’s Sydney). Slowly recovering from years of abuse, and the shock of finally having space to breathe, Cecilia receives news that Adrian is dead.
While her friends sombrely welcome Cecilia’s freedom, she does not believe the story around his death – he was a master manipulator, a prodigy in optical technology, a man with plenty of resources, and a sadistic genius with a will determined to control all around him. Plagued by internal psychological trauma, soon enough signs begin to appear that somehow he is still here.
The film rests on the transfixing and emotionally turbulent performance of Elisabeth Moss. After roles in films like “Her Smell,” “Queen of Earth” or “Top of the Lake,” it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Moss can ripple with the anarchy and innate fear of the enduring effects of abuse and ongoing unseen manipulations. Long before the threats manifest into violence, and even before she’s certain something is happening, Cecilia is already on the ragged edge – a ball of post-traumatic stress.
Cecilia’s isolation combined with her increasing paranoia and instability soon makes people wish she was invisible, even as her fear begins to manifest itself more physically with increasingly brazen attempts to torment her – they at least prove it’s no longer just in her head, even if only to Cecilia herself.
While the pulpy superhero world of cinema has long championed that those with great power also hold great responsibility, that sentiment and ownership feels alien in our far more cynical world. One need only watch the news or have seen various movies in recent years to freely associate tech billionaires pursuing an agenda motivated entirely by nefarious self-interest.
The deft camera moves away from characters, highlights empty and negative spaces – turning the most banal and safest of abodes into places pulsing with potential menace. Stillness is a weapon, wielded powerfully and with deft control. Empty hallways, dark rooms, cramped crawl-spaces – all are dangerous.
Whannell is deliberate in his choice to make Oliver Jackson Cohen’s Adrian a cypher. We don’t get a “Paddington 2” secret monologue, with Adrian sans mask vocally reinforcing his maniacal torment. The audience, like the people surrounding Cecilia, register his absence in the psychological scarring present in Cecilia’s actions and in the way the other characters relate to her isolation. Adrian is as much the shark from “Jaws” or Michael Myers from “Halloween,” as he is a “Sleeping with the (Invisible) Enemy” or “When A(n invisible) Stranger Calls” stalker; bridging a force of nature and a deeply human expression of malice.
Cinephile influences are seasoned throughout (hello tasteful nods to Michael Mann and James Cameron), but when Cecilia’s fears are realised we at times occupy the perspective of, and in some ways become, the antagonist. Whannell’s camera is not only omniscient but at times malignant, taking cues from the first-person immediacy of the last acts of “Taxi Driver” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” forcing the audience to embody the pain that Adrian wants to inflict.
Aldis Hodge’s James and Storm Reid’s Sydney are a great father-daughter combo, bursting with warmth. Their messy little suburban home is a nurturing space for Cecilia after the cold austereness of Adrian’s mansion of concrete and glass. It’s a clifftop fortress, and in Cecilia’s case – a gilded cage.
Michael Dorman plays Adrian’s younger brother and attorney who is both a henchman and a victim to his egomaniacal and deranged sibling. Dorman’s performance is full of landmines that I’ll wait for you step on. Harriet Dyer plays Cecilia’s long term friend that has had to suffer her cyclical returns to Adrian. Dyer has an immovable presence here, standing way taller than her stature to protect her friend in her time of need. Her comedic timing is perfect and a restaurant scene is one of the most relatable and funny of the film.
There is a timeless quality to great genre films such as this. They can endure long after the time they are produced because they satisfy audience cravings for a heightened mental and physiological experience. While you can label “The Invisible Man” a post-MeToo thriller, it falls back on tried and true stalker genre staples that have been in place for decades and have always worked.
Intriguingly though, it is also a post-Cambridge Analytica thriller, one where the signs of domestic violence can be traced to both literal and virtual social retreat. We live in a time of extreme cyberbullying, of screen addictions controlled largely invisible forces that can have a profound impact on our health mentally and physically. Our contemporary society alters the very DNA of the tale, and yet at Whannell never feels the need to be so overt in his expression; it’s there, but it’s invisible.