Whether it be superheroes, kaiju monsters, or paranormal investigators, the interconnected series of cinematic adventures have come to define the landscape of the modern blockbuster, but the idea of a “cinematic universe” has existed almost as long as the motion picture itself. As early as 1925, Universal was planting seeds for a cohesive universe of characters in the form of their “Universal Classic Monsters,” not only bringing literary horrors such as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster to the silver screen but also allowing them to come face-to-face.
The characters reappeared and found continued success in films of the late 90s and 2000s, recontextualized as big-budget tentpoles led by stars such as Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) and Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing) – though Universal ultimately had hopes of recreating the same shared universe success in the modern era. But two critical and commercial flops (2014’s Dracula Untold and 2017’s The Mummy) and one infamous cast photo later, the “Dark Universe” was laid to rest just as quickly as it had been born. It would seem, however, that third time is indeed the charm. The remnants of the Dark Universe have been gathered and reassessed, and with The Invisible Mancomes a promising new, filmmaker-driven future for Universal’s franchise.
The quietly intense opening scene sets the stage from the get-go: Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) gathers her things with an unmissable deliberation and escapes the remote beach house of her abusive partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). All seems well, and Cecilia slowly eases her way into a normal life, until news that Adrian has seemingly taken his life contradicts an increasingly dangerous set of circumstances that lead her to believe she is still being followed by Adrian – who nobody can see, and whose presence only she is aware of.
Filmed on a budget of just $7 million (further impressive budgeting from Blumhouse Productions), The Invisible Man is lean and efficient horror filmmaking, a much different beast than the grand adventure films that preceded it. Setpieces are often constrained to small locales – a suburban home, the halls of a psychiatric hospital – and are inventive in their restraint from relying on too much CGI trickery, nailing a claustrophobic atmosphere that successfully puts us in our lead heroine’s headspace.
In many ways, The Invisible Man grants its writer/director Leigh Whannell ways to apply techniques from his supernatural horror upbringing – he has been a frequent collaborator of fellow horror filmmaker James Wan for over a decade – to a much different kind of film. Many sequences are shot with wide angles and feature significant amounts of negative space, with some shots lingering seconds longer than they should and drifting to focus on objects in the background. Just as Adrian relentlessly torments Cecilia, Whannell is deliberately messing with us, inviting us to scour the frame for any sign of the titular character before unexpectedly pulling out the rug for an effective scare.
But what really makes The Invisible Man such an uncomfortable horror experience is the realization that underneath this sci-fi story is a painfully real story of psychological abuse. Whannell’s brilliant creative decision to center this particular story of The Invisible Man not around the titular scientist seen in the original H.G. Wells novel and the 1933 James Whale film, but around a female victim, creates a traditional horror film that doubles as a harrowing allegory in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and the “#MeToo” movement. The constant gaslighting Cecilia faces, and hopelessness she feels at the disbelief of even her closest friends is unnerving in context of the film, but it all takes on deeper levels of terror upon the realization that this kind of terror isn’t limited to just the lives of horror protagonists, but to countless women in our everyday lives.
As a film exploring this kind of social commentary, The Invisible Man is naturally more interested in exploring the “why” than the “how:” not too much focus is dedicated to explaining how Adrian becomes invisible, for instance, because Whannell knows it’s not a priority. But if anything threatens to unravel the film, it’s this: the plot sometimes lines up conveniences that sacrifice logic in order to maintain its momentum. Characters start making nonsensical decisions, the villain’s plan becomes a bit convoluted, and the harder you think about it all, the more it falls apart. It’s the kind of narrative structure that the genre thrives on though, and though it can be bothersome, it’s mostly easy to ignore based on just how engaging the film is overall and how effective the exploration of such topical themes is.
Though we never see firsthand accounts of just exactly what kind of abuse Cecilia suffered before the events of the movie, Moss, who is no stranger to these kinds of troubled characters (Us, The Handmaid’s Tale, Her Smell), convincingly shows the long-lasting effects they’ve had: her noticeably tense posture and constantly clenched fists exude an unwavering sense of fear and weariness. For Moss, an actress who has found success in both prestige television and the indie film scene, this ability to create such emotions largely through her physicality is just another example of why she’s among the greatest talents of her generation and marks another promising step forward for her into Hollywood’s mainstream.
And likewise for Whannell, who, now three films into his directing career, shows wonderful promise as a filmmaker capable of bringing inventive new ideas to the industry. Working on multiple thematic layers and boasting impressive cinematic techniques from its up-and-coming director, The Invisible Man is an exciting showcase for everyone involved, and hopefully marks a strong new beginning for Universal’s Classic Monsters as they approach their hundred-year anniversary.
Review: The Invisible Man (2020)
Smartly subverting the source material, The Invisible Man mostly dodges genre trappings and offers a powerful horror story for the modern world