Movies are usually a product of the moment they were made. Either they feed off the zeitgeist or they inform the culture afterwards. Great movies usually do both. Every once in a while, a film like The Invisible Man comes along and strikes several chords at once, some intended, others unforeseeable. The film’s female-centric themes acquire a deeper meaning simply by coming out during this very peculiar time in history. Gothic horror becomes a pandemic parable by way of #MeToo.
The Invisible Man in a Nutshell
Other than featuring a character named Griffin, The Invisible Man bears little resemblance to its namesake, the classic H.G. Wells science fiction tale that spawned countless adaptations and imitations. In fact, this version hardly focuses on the titular unforseen individual, but rather on Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). We meet Cecilia as she’s quite literally escaping from her toxic relationship with wealthy alpha male Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) serves double duty as both emotional support and getaway driver.
Cecilia hides out at the home of James (Aldis Hodge), a cop living with his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). What Cecilia lacks in tangible proof of abuse, she more than makes up in PTSD. Weeks later, news comes of Adrian’s untimely suicide. Adrian’s lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) tells Cecilia she has inherited a substantial amount of money from the deceased. More than enough to start fresh and even to help young Sydney go to her preferred college.
But try as she might, Cecilia cannot shake off a familiar unease. Unexplained occurrences start happening around her with no visible explanation. Odd, but strangely familiar to her, like the sort of mind games Adrian would play. Has she become paranoid? Is Adrian still alive? Would anyone believe her if he were?
Male director aside, this fresh take on The Invisible Man conforms to Hollywood’s recent attempts at increasing female representation and portraying female empowerment. Clearly it paralells abusive relationships, sexual harassment, and the way victims are usually ignored or discredited in those cases. Guilty until proven innocent, by which time the situation usually becomes tragic. #TimesUp, #MeToo and similar social movements have slowly turned the tide, for sure, but there’s still a long way to go.
Casting Elisabeth Moss in the lead pretty much gives away the filmmakers’ intentions. One does not cast the breakout star of Mad Men, the women’s lib poster child from The Handmaid’s Tale, to lead a generic horror romp. Her performance elevates the material, for sure, yet never does she let it become woe-is-me preachy. Moss keeps things perfectly balanced, never leaning toward histrionics nor impassiveness. Her body language, the way she projects animal fear or despair at not being believed, becomes the movie’s top visual effect.
Less CGI and More Mood
Not to take credit away from director Leigh Whannell, veteran co-creator of Saw, who has recently taken his own unique path. He wrote, produced and acted on several noteworthy projects, chief among them the Saw and Insidious film franchises. He then debuted as director on Insidious: Chapter 3. Whannell followed that up with Upgrade, a surprisingly engaging sci-fi take on the posessed body trope. Upgrade and The Invisible Man share Whannell’s lean, minimalist visual style. Surely he would have crafted an effective ghost story without Moss, but together they elevate each other’s game.
The Invisible Man employs fewer visual effects than previous films dealing with the subject, partly due to the Blumhouse low-budget production model. It barely bothers explaining the science behind invisibility, which is the right choice in this case. (Some throwaway details hint that Adrian was a specialist in the field of optics.) Thus the film’s power comes from being, for the most part, a one-woman high wire act.
One of the novel ways Whannell achieves this is by refraining to show Adrian as much as possible. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, a standout on The Haunting of Hill House, appears sparingly, which adds to his menace. A side profile here, a silhouette there, the occasional creepy whisper. To paraphrase Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he was invisible before he became invisible, except to the people he hurts. It works so well that by the time you see him whole, instinctively you know the power dynamic has shifted.
Escapism in the Time of Coronavirus
The Invisible Man is obviously entertaining. However, its biggest twist may be how it could become a parable on the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic. The film enjoyed a short but successful run in theaters. This was before most governments around the world imposed quarantine on its citizens to lessen the spread of the virus. Now that movie theaters are closed, the film has gained popularity during its early release on digital platforms.
Watching The Invisible Man at home, filtered through the lens of this crisis, somehow makes the film even more effective. After all, we witness Elisabeth Moss trapped in confined spaces, fighting for her life and sanity against an invisible threat. Meanwhile, authority figures assure her it’s all in her head. Surely, we can all relate as we spend our time constantly washing our hands or fighting the urge to touch our faces. Good horror like The Invisible Man serves as escapism and can help us channel our real-life anxieties during times like these.
All great movies eventually rise to greatness on their own merit, no matter when they come out or how lucrative they are during their theater run. Some, however, manage to piggyback on the public’s need to escape after enduring massive tragedy. Maybe 2001’s Zoolander and 2002’s Spider-Man would have been big hits either way, but the fallout from 9/11 most likely helped their box office. Years from now we’ll discuss in retrospect whether The Invisible Man is great genre cinema or simply came out at the right time. For now, I find the movie mirrors how humanity is feeling, which is what art is meant to do.
Movie title: The Invisible Man
Movie description: Exceptional genre cinema with a female perspective that works even better when filtered through the lens of a global pandemic
Date published: 2020-03-28
Director(s): Leigh Whannell
Actor(s): Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Storm Reid
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Science Fiction