Since Claude Rains first donned the moniker of H.G. Wells’ invisible man in 1933, Hollywood has struggled to raise the character above his sightless premise. Numerous takes on Rains’ character came out between the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the story has been adapted many times over since then. Now, with Universal hoping to resurrect its damaged Dark Universe of horror characters, it’s time to give The Invisible Man another shot. Gone is Rains’ flamboyant portrayal of a scientist gone mad and in its place is a story about gaslighting and abuse. Despite Elisabeth Moss’ affecting performance, Leigh Whannell’s script crumbles under the weight of wanting to please all comers.
[Editor’s Note: If you are experiencing domestic abuse, please call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800 737 732.]
Whannell, the screenwriter of Blumhouse features like Saw and Insidious, as well as the director of the action feature Upgrade, borrows from several abused woman stories for The Invisible Man.
We meet Moss’ Cecilia Kass as she’s engaging in an escape routine ripped straight from the Julia Roberts-led Sleeping With the Enemy. Cecilia is leaving her physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend Adrian (The Haunting of Hill House’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a genius in the “field of optics.” When Adrian turns up dead of an apparent suicide, Cecilia’s friends and sister believe it’ll finally allow her to start her life anew. But a series of strange events leaves Cecilia wondering if Adrian has found a way to invisibly torment her.
The Invisible Man has always had an unspoken air of creepiness to women especially, with its themes of voyeurism. In the 2000 Paul Verhoeven feature Hollow Man, Kevin Bacon plays a scientist who believes he’s a god-like genius, especially after he turns invisible. He also has a penchant for nudity, and rape plays a part in the film’s narrative. For Verhoeven, the notion of women being assaulted by something they could not see was more for titillation than fear.
Whannell takes that fear and paranoia literally with his story of a woman who hasn’t just been gaslit by her boyfriend over several years but is now being told she’s crazy by everyone around her when she believes Adrian has discovered how to be invisible. Where Verhoeven took things to a trash-tastic level, Whannell reminds us that, for women, this premise has always been terrifying.
As Cecilia, Moss anchors a story that is simultaneously rooted in crushing reality and high levels of science fiction. Not only does she convey terror—and shows off an amazing flair for beating up invisible people—she also gives pathos to the questions Whannell posits about toxic relationships, such as why a successful genius like Adrian would waste his time relentlessly pursuing Cecilia when he could theoretically have anybody. As Moss’ character is thrown into a pit of despair, her agony eventually transitions into anger and hostility, and her turn as the formulaic beaten woman redeemed provides great, and much-needed, catharsis.
But because audiences have seen glamorous women like Jennifer Lopez and Farrah Fawcett go wild on men who have wronged them in the past, Whannell tries to infuse more reality, bringing a more progressive sensibility to The Invisible Man that feels forced. Much of this seems to rely on Moss trying to seek solace from her friends with regards to Adrian’s abuse of her, only to have them feel uncaring. Where Whannell wants to show gaslighting is real (which it is), his characters feel remarkably cold. Maybe that’s to point out how little we’ve changed with regards to abusive relationships?
Only two weeks separate Cecilia’s flight from Adrian to her first interactions with her best friend James (Aldis Hodge) and her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), yet both characters, Emily in particular, expect Cecilia to be completely normal. Even once odd things start happening, such as a mean-spirited letter sent to Emily, her sister’s first reaction is to throw into Cecilia’s face that she dated a sociopath.
The supporting characters outright blame Cecilia, but the character is never given any moments to call them out for their callousness. Even now, in the wake of Weinstein’s trial and the murder of Amie Harwick, women are too often blamed and judged for leaving abusive situations or coming forward with accusations. Invisible Man has a chance to drive that point home but steps back. To their credit, Hodge and Storm Reid, who plays his daughter, are warm characters who you root for. They care for Cecilia in a way that is emotionally resonant.
As Cecilia starts to simultaneously realise she is being stalked while trying to get someone to believe it’s happening, the movie settles into a leisurely pace, particularly if you understand how gaslighting narratives in media work. For every person Cecilia tries to alert to what is happening there’s another scene of them telling her she needs help. In a movie that clocks in at almost two hours, this repetition can make Invisible Man feel a bit start-and-stop. The third act reveal of what is happening can also come off as a bit silly, though it’s hard to fathom how things could have been better considering the history of films like these, such as 1940’s Gaslight.
Though once things turn to the murderous, Whannell showcases why he was hired for this movie. The director expertly captures why stalking and a premise like this affects women differently. Not only does gaslighting take on a whole added layer, but Whannell’s camera captures the fear and hesitation that comes from simply being a woman at home. Watching Cecilia walk around, wondering if someone is sitting in a chair or just standing in the hallway staring at her is terrifying, which only makes moments like when Reid’s Sydney is sleeping home alone but leaves a door unlocked all the more frustrating.
At the same time, Whannell also gets a bit too wrapped up in emphasising the Empowerment, with a capital E, of the story. Long takes focus on Moss’ face as she comes to grand realisations, either frightening or illuminating, aided by overwrought choral music on the soundtrack. These moments almost play like a directorial pat on the back when the movie doesn’t need them.
Whannell certainly pulls off the impossible, which is making an Invisible Man movie that is relevant and scary. The visual effects aren’t anything revelatory, outside of some cool in-camera effects like flying knives. But, for the most part, you’ve seen a lot of the invisibility stuff already. Moss perfectly inhabits her character and when the movie is about her and Adrian, and their relationship specifically, it’s a dazzlingly terrifying film. The problem is when it gets too fearful in explaining elements like trauma and sexual violence, letting Moss’ Cecilia become a victim for unfeeling side characters. The Invisible Man is certainly a heavily mixed bag.
The Invisible Man hits theatres February 27.
Kristen Lopez is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, MTV, and The Hollywood Reporter.