After Universal’s Dark Universe initiative failed spectacularly with 2017’s big-budget action dud The Mummy, the studio stepped back from trying to launch a cinematic universe around its classic monster characters and instead shifted to making smaller-scale, standalone films reimagining those characters in a modern context. That strategy is off to a good start with The Invisible Man, writer-director Leigh Whannell’s creepy yet socially conscious take on the story originally told in H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, and first brought to the screen at Universal in 1933, from director James Whale and star Claude Rains. Plot-wise, Whannell’s version has little in common with Wells’ novel or Whale’s film, but it continues the theme of the title character using his invisibility for nefarious purposes.
Whannell takes that theme one step further, making his invisible man, tech mogul Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), into a looming villain threatening the movie’s actual main character, Adrian’s traumatized ex-girlfriend Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). The movie opens with Cecilia mounting a carefully planned escape from Adrian’s sprawling seaside estate, where she’s been a virtual prisoner in an abusive relationship. She barely makes it to a car driven by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) before Adrian catches up with her, smashing the car window and swearing that she can never leave him.
Two weeks later, Adrian turns up dead, or at least appears to, and Cecilia is surprised to discover that he’s left her $5 million in his will. Her relief at being free of his threats proves short-lived, though, since soon she’s experiencing unexplained disturbances at the home where she’s been staying with her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and James’ teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). She pretty quickly becomes convinced that Adrian, an expert in optics technology, has devised a way to become invisible, faking his death so that he can continue to torment her without anything standing in his way. The more that Cecilia insists Adrian is stalking her, the more everyone around her is convinced that she’s losing her grip on reality.
It’s a smart and effective horror-movie reflection of the way that victims of domestic violence are often disbelieved and dismissed, and to Whannell’s credit, he doesn’t spend any time toying with the audience, suggesting that Cecilia might be mentally unstable. The movie is called The Invisible Man, and it definitely delivers on that title. Still, even if Cecilia and the audience know that Adrian is still there, the rest of the characters don’t share that certainty, and Whannell builds moments of suspense from the knowledge that Adrian is lurking somewhere, waiting to strike, while most of the people in the room deny that he’s even there.
Moss is fantastic as the frightened but determined Cecilia, who gathers all her strength to leave Adrian at the beginning of the movie, and holds on to that resolve no matter how much she’s doubted and pressured. Her performance is what makes the unseen danger feel real, and Whannell makes the most of his relatively minimal (for a major studio film) resources, scaring the audience just by panning the camera to an empty space, and staging tense battles out of actors flailing around in thin air. As a screenwriter, Whannell co-created the Saw and Insidious franchises, and his previous films as a director include the decidedly B-level genre fare of 2018’s Upgrade and the third Insidious movie. He doesn’t abandon his pulpy genre roots here, but Invisible is more subdued than Whannell’s earlier work, taking more time to establish Cecilia’s life and relationships before throwing her into immediate peril.
Once she gets there, though, Invisible delivers some very entertaining horror-movie thrills, including at least one genuinely shocking moment. The topical commentary takes a back seat to the action in the final act, but by that point Whannell and Moss have so clearly laid out the stakes that they don’t need to keep reminding the audience of Cecilia’s social standing. Being chased by an invisible psychopath is a pretty compelling motivation for anyone, and Whannell knows when to get out of the way and let the well-crafted scares and intense action take over.