Universal’s 2017 re-interpretation of The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman and starring Tom Cruise, went for a frivolous, action-oriented romp. It appeared to be searching for something akin to yet distinct from the Stephen Sommers-directed The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns—distinguished enough in its choreography to suit Cruise’s devil-may-care persona yet narratively grounded enough to kick off a multi-IP franchise worthy of crossovers and event films.
This latter conceit was dead on arrival. While The Mummy did suffice, in some measure, with its Cruisian stunts, the absurd forwardness of its franchising mindset (in juxtaposition to the lackluster story) was a full-on dud.
Enter: Leigh Whannell and Universal’s grand pivot away from The Mummy. The Invisible Man, taken from H.G. Wells’ source material and Universal’s original 1933 adaptation, replaces the fun-and-games action and workmanlike world building of Kurtzman’s film with a haunting, grounded story that maintains genuine stakes through its pure insularity. This is a welcome pivot.
Ultimately, the story of The Invisible Man (2020) is one of domestic abuse and stalking. The opening sequence, told with an admirable reliance on visual storytelling, shows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) sneaking around a well-to-do, highly secure estate. She is executing an escape from her abusive boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and it is truly as though she were in a prison. She must disable security cameras, be wary of alarms, and scale a high wall in order to reach the road.
Adrian does not take the affront lightly. We hear talk of his obsessive behavior, and we see its emotional and psychological toll on Cecilia—for two weeks following her escape she cannot stomach leaving her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house. But when Cecilia learns of Adrian’s apparent suicide, we start to see the obsession first hand (granted, “see” might not be the operative term).
Following his death, Adrian grants Cecilia $5 million dollars, tax free, to be dolled out in $100,000 installments on the condition that she is not convicted of a crime or deemed mentally unwell. The catch is that Adrian, a researcher of optics, appears to be continuing to torment Cecilia from beyond the grave. She becomes convinced that he is still alive, and that he aims to continue controlling her.
The tension and horror of the film stems, predominantly, from this abusive obsession. Like the best of the classic Universal monster pictures, The Invisible Man relies less on the horror of its monster and more on the horror that comes from how this monster is situated in a grounded and realistic environment (the horror of Frankenstein, for example, is as much, if not more so, about the human response to the monster as it is about the appearance of the monster). Whannell does engage with more standard order horror genre set pieces, but the fear instilled to the audience comes more from the emotional stakes of the real-world horror of abuse.
Moss, giving yet another strong performance, grounds these emotional stakes in an impressive way. Despite the fantastical element of an invisible visage haunting her character, Moss never leaves the emotionally taxing and stressful reality of her character’s situation. She is being haunted, but this is not simply a ghost story. It is a story about trauma and how the person experiencing it fights to overcome it. And Moss is the reason this story remains effective while still operating within the bounds of a fantastical horror film.
Whannell’s direction is adept. He utilizes space and blocking in clever and engaging ways. Wide angle lenses distort and elongate the rooms of James’ house where Cecilia is terrorized. The space created by this feels alien and adds to the oppressive atmosphere of the plot. However, when the story leaves James’ house, the style loses some of this flavor. And one of the bigger set pieces in the film uses some of Whannell and DP Stefan Duscio’s tricks from Upgrade, which brings out some tonal inconsistencies. Namely, this set piece reads more action-centric and less attuned to Cecilia’s plight.
In a similar vein, The Invisible Man is slightly overlong for its story. The third act that contains this set piece (and the set piece itself) feels the need to illustrate more action than is required of the narrative. This is compounded with a change of setting that deflates some of the tension, resulting in a third act that feels a bit flabby and unfocused. It is a noticeable negative shift, given the pointedly visceral and rapid moments that bookend this act—the effective, shocking break into act three and the satisfying, expedient climax.
These minor inconveniences aside, The Invisible Man succeeds in reorienting the “Universal Monster” brand, and it does so by telling a grounded story with potent stakes and an emotionally resonant central performance.
The Invisible Man: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)