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{Film Review} The Invisible Man: A Timely Retelling of a Classic

Give writer/director Leigh Whannell credit. He was charged with the difficult task of resurrecting yet another classic Universal Monster after the last reboot, 2017’s The Mummy, was a major box office dud that pretty much killed any plans the studio had for a Dark Universe franchise. Whannell’s The Invisible Man is a re-imagining of H.G. Wells’ 1897 classic novel that turns the monster into an abusive boyfriend. This latest take is an incredibly suspenseful film, bolstered by an outstanding performance by Elisabeth Moss. It is her performance as the victim that makes the film.

As the film begins, we’re introduced to Moss’ character, architect Cecilia Kass. Immediately, she plots an escape from her crazed boyfriend, famed scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). From the outset, Whannell does a superb job establishing tension. Cecilia tip-toes around their swanky, ocean-view apartment while Griffin sleeps. As she stuffs a duffel bag and resets the alarms so she can flee the premise, Cecilia jumps at every little creak and sound, and rightfully so. The cameras Griffin installed watch her every move.

Moss’ acting in this opening scene is stellar, be it her terror-stricken gaze or her frazzled demeanor. Griffin may spend the first scene sleeping, but it’s apparent the effect he’s had on his significant other. Moss conveys this through panicked breaths and startled reactions. Her anxiety is palpable. When she does eventually escape and stays with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), she’s still so traumatized that she has a near panic attack when attempting to step outside and retrieve the mail. She’s certain Griffin will find her.

These early scenes are enhanced by Benjamin Wallfisch’s score. As Cecilia tries to escape, or when she’s certain she’s being watched, jagged violins and pulse-pounding percussion up the tension. The score reflects the protagonist’s frayed nerves.

Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios

After the opening scenes, the suspense never relents. Cecilia is told that Griffin died, but she refuses to believe it. Sure enough, he returns as the Invisible Man. Here, the take on the classic monster differs from Wells’ novel and James Whale’s classic 1933 adaptation. In both, the scientist is indeed power-crazed but also a trickster. He steals, breaks into houses, and eventually murders. Here, Griffin is malicious and downright terrifying immediately. Some of the strongest scenes occur within the first half of the film, when Griffin haunts his ex in subtle ways, including turning up the stove, running the water, or pulling the blankets off her while she sleeps. He’s certain no one will believe her, and initially, they don’t.

At one point, Cecilia says, “He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.” Indeed, this is what makes the latest adaptation of The Invisible Man work so well. The monster is a punishing force, an ex who won’t go away until he isolates Cecilia from everyone she loves, and she has no one to turn to other than him.

What’s more terrifying than an abusive ex who tracks down his victim and breaks into the house where she’s staying? He’s always watching her, to the point that he controls her personal technology. At one point, he breaks into her laptop to send relationship-ending emails to her loved ones. In several shots within the film’s first half, Whannell zooms in on open doorways or a chair in the corner. Like Cecilia, the viewer can’t see the monster, but we’re certain he’s there.

It’s nearly impossible to top Claude Rains classic performance in the 1933 film. It’s one of the best in the Universal canon. Jackson-Cohen does a good enough job in the role, but this 2020 adaptation is more about the effects the monster has on the victim than the monster itself. This is about Cecilia’s trauma, and thus, it’s Moss who steals the show. Through all of this, though, she refuses to come undone, and she steels herself to ultimately fight back and confront her abuser.

Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios

The year is young, but thus far, The Invisible Man is one of the best mainstream horror entries of 2020, complete with edge-of-your seat suspense and a narrative that is incredibly relevant in the wake of wealthy men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby facing prison time for abusing women. Moss has already proven in “The Handmaid’s Tale” that she can play a powerful, subversive heroine who endures under the worst circumstances. She gives an inspired performance in The Invisible Man, one that makes the film all the scarier.

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