Universal’s been attempting to restart their famous horror icons for a hot minute now, including an embarrassing effort to start a “Dark Universe” that had fancy cast photoshoots and everything, beginning with Tom Cruise’s ill-fated The Mummy. As with many forms of hubris, this did not pan out, and Universal let Blumhouse take a crack at their monsters with The Invisible Man. If their Invisible Man is the standard going forward, I am very much into whatever they have in the pipeline.
The Invisible Man of 2020 is not faithful to the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, nor to the 1933 movie. It takes the bones of the novel and creates something mostly different – what we get is a story of a sociopathic scientist engaging in domestic abuse rather than a crazed scientist terrorizing a town – and it’s effective in its own right, really. The opening alone is one of the most impressive in a while, with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) quietly plotting to get away from her husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night. There’s sparse music and sparser dialogue, we know nothing about these people, but we immediately clue into what’s happening and it is immediately tense.
The first half, I’d say, of The Invisible Man is masterful in building and sustaining tension, using many things a movie has in its toolbelt to full advantage, from Moss’ extremely expressive face to panning the camera towards negative space, priming us for jolts that usually don’t happen. It toys with expectations, acutely aware that we’re anticipating a man who is probably invisible, gradually showing its hand until dealing it in a most perfect way, kicking the movie from a relative slow-burn (it’s rather small-scale at first, mostly taking place at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house) into a sprint.
That sprint isn’t as delicious as the simmering anxiety in the first half, and it’s tonally jarring at first – shifting from horror to more sci-fi thriller – but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal to the story, even if I’d argue trading its efficiency at horror is a bit of a letdown. But to be fair, I can recognize that there are only so many times you can do the “oOoOo is he there?” setup and throw around Elisabeth Moss before it’s rote. Cecilia is a textbook example of the core screenwriting tenet of taking nice people and doing absolutely horrible things to them, and it’s more impressive that she’s not a paper-thin character in turn. We get a legitimate sense of her aspirations and her past life before becoming entangled with Adrian and his schemes, we know any quirks or outbursts come from a place of deep trauma, so when she fights back it’s very satisfying, letting us overlook a couple actions that feel slightly out of place for her because goddamnit you want her to succeed. And the stakes here are elemental – an unseen evil seeks to ruin everything Cecilia has that can improve her life. By trying to escape that evil, it gets worse. The Invisible Man doesn’t elaborate on that much further, aside from serving as a commentary (albeit a relatively basic one) on abusive relationships and the lasting dysfunction resulting from them, but that’s the smart play as it keeps everything humming along nicely.
And despite being a 2-hour movie, The Invisible Man really does breeze. It knows when not to overstay its welcome, when you’re about to get bored of a sequence (the climactic fight scene is on the bleeding edge of going on for too long before ending at the most ideal time), plus I have to admire a movie that gets to the point without flourish and doesn’t feel like something’s missing. The only exception to that might be the last 10-15 minutes – they’re all over the place and eager to hurry to the end, even though the beats themselves make sense. For a movie that makes quite sure we know Cecilia is hurting and lets us feel the various impacts of that, it’s odd to feel like everything’s on fast-forward in the last moments that ought to be the most meaningful (I’m a fan of those individual moments themselves, however).
That’s not a significant critique when the rest of the movie is so proficient. The Invisible Man is well-versed in the fundamental ingredients that make horror effective and entertaining, and when it unshackles its horror trappings it still manages to be compelling viewing. It’s not big, it’s not aspiring to shift any paradigms, but it’s incredibly confident in the cat-and-mouse story it wants to deliver and just as gripping where it counts.