With Upgrade, Leigh Whannell demanded attention as an inventive writer/director with some serious action chops and an eye for the unusual and unexamined. In Universal’s newest take on the iconic Invisible Man, Whannell turns that eye to the terror of domestic abuse, making an impressive and delightfully dark return to the horror genre in which he made his name as a co-creator of the Saw franchise.Though the character’s tenure as a Universal Monster made the Invisible Man a classic horror icon, the H.G. Wells story which inspired it is very much a science-fiction parable about the hubris of man and the danger of an unchecked ego. Without spoiling too much, Whannell is clearly invested in exploring those thematic threads with his electrifying reimagining which plays into the classic novel’s ideas of madness, murder, and mayhem with a very contemporary twist.
Set in modern-day San Francisco, The Invisible Man strays from other adaptations by following Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) as she absconds from her violent and cruel ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a Mark Zuckerberg-esque tech billionaire who made his fortune in “optics.” From the opening moments of the film where we see Cecilia sneaking out of the compound-like home she shared with Adrian, Whannell throws the audience into a nerve-wracking and chillingly realized ride through the absolute worst-case scenario of leaving an abusive partner.
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Moss is the beating heart of the movie here as the distressed and desperate Cecilia, who spends most of the movie struggling against the waves of trauma that her relationship with Adrian has left her drowning in. This is another no-holds-barred performance from The Handmaid’s Tale actress who offers up an almost uncomfortably raw turn as a woman wronged so badly that she almost has no concept of how to treat the people who are left in her life. Though he is barely on screen, Jackson-Cohen is a solid choice as the handsome and sociopathic billionaire who can’t bear to let go of the one thing that he can no longer control.
The small supporting cast is equally as engaging with Aldis Hodge as Cecilia’s old friend James who takes her in after she makes her escape. His sweet and thoughtful daughter Sydney is played by the ever-watchable Storm Reid, who gets some seriously dark material and handles it brilliantly. If anything, their roles could have been expanded as both are characters that you want to know more about, but this is Cecilia’s story and so ultimately their paths (and screen time) are guided by her journey.
There is an effective coldness and chill to The Invisible Man which is tangible, from the grey skies of San Francisco to the concrete walls of Adrian’s looming home. There’s a gritty grimness to it all that can’t quite be escaped, and that’s entirely the point. Nothing about The Invisible Man is meant to be comfortable; Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio fill every moment with dread and anxiety that is entirely fitting for a horror film that takes one of the darkest aspects of human nature and wrings every ounce of terror out of it that it can. Another highlight that needs recognition is the production design by Alex Holmes, which plays into the inescapable nature of Adrian. This is especially noticeable in his open-plan home, with its glass-walled structure that makes you feel like you can do nothing without being watched.
Of course, in any monster movie you want to know about the titular monster. Well, not wanting to give too much away, what I can say is that Whannell makes a decision that is both creatively daring and almost monstrously simple. Think of the thrill of watching Paranormal Activity for the first time and trying to spot all of the spiritual shenanigans and you’re halfway to what makes this iteration of The Invisible Man so utterly terrifying.
Alongside the atmospheric visual landscape that the creative team built, composer Benjamin Wallfisch crafts entertainingly engaging dueling scores for both Adrian and Cecilia. The former is an appropriately pulsating electronic landscape closer to drone music than a classical film score, whereas our heroine is scored by a more expected orchestral arrangement that often soars as we follow her on a most unexpected and grim iteration of the hero’s journey. The coherence and narrative of the score and film together give The Invisible Man an immersive quality that delights and unsettles in equal measure.
At just over two hours, The Invisible Man never drags, instead successfully building tension to a breaking point. But depending on your patience for a slow burn start leading to some breakneck twists and turns, you might get a little cinematic whiplash when it comes to the film’s brutal and action-packed latter half. That final act is where Whannell really shows his power, though, with some truly gasp-inducing moments and more of the stunningly imagined and choreographed action that made Upgrade such a cult hit amongst genre fans.
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The biggest issue that The Invisible Man faces is actually tied to how slick it is. There’s a rawness to Elisabeth Moss’ performance that hints at a deeper character study we don’t get, and whilst the clinical dissection of an abusive relationship and the horrors it has wrought are grimly effective, there is arguably a lack of depth to the conversation the film is trying to have. As a simple revenge story, The Invisible Man ends up delivering something truly satisfying. But the first two acts of the movie don’t always feel like they’re setting that up, and at times hint at an exploration of abuse that’s more nuanced and profound, yet it never materializes. Ironically, it’s the fact that Whannell is confident and experimental enough to try and utilize the nature of abuse as a structure for horror rather than a messaging opportunity that may lead some to ask: what is The Invisible Man really trying to say?
Whannell’s exploration of horror and abuse may not be for everyone. Not only is it deeply distressing in parts but it’s often brutal in its depiction of trauma — although something that feels radical is that we rarely see the violence that caused such trauma depicted on screen — and the fear of losing control. Seeing Cecilia seemingly lose her grip on reality and drive everyone around her away is tough, even though Whannell and company offer up an equally dark redemption. It’s that rawness and interest in shining a light on the most unappealing moments of being a survivor that makes The Invisible Man stand out, but it’s also miles away from the warmth and nostalgia that many viewers might be expecting when they walk into what is still a Universal Monsters movie.