*. H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man has proven to be one of the most plastic figures in pop culture. He (or sometimes she) has been capable of being played as villain (even monster), victim, and figure of fun. More recently he’s become more of a comic-book character, with invisibility being a super power. In short, he’s culturally adaptable.
*. This final point leads in to the story of this movie’s development. It was originally planned as being part of Universal’s Dark Universe series, with Johnny Depp playing the Invisible Man. That idea got scrapped along with the rest of the Dark Universe when The Mummy didn’t pan out. Instead Jason Blum got interested and the film became more like another product in the house style of American horror. Or Blumhouse style, more accurately.
*. That style is something I’ve talked about before, and its put on full display here by Leigh Whannell, whose directorial debut had been Insidious: Chapter 3. Since the invisible man this time out is, for most intents and purposes, a ghost, the movie plays the same way as many of the ghost stories of this period (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Conjuring/Annabelle, etc.). Lots of slow pans, long shots held on nothing, and a use of the frame to suggest some presence either off to one side or lurking behind the protagonist.
*. Whannell was well aware of this, mentioning on the DVD commentary how there are “a lot of shots in this movie of nothing,” or negative space. He also talks of “weaponizing an audience’s knowledge of movies against them,” which is to say playing with expectations that the genre naturally raises.
*. In all this we have a movie that feels a lot like a standard Blumhouse ghost story. It even has the low budget of most of their productions, coming in at a remarkable $7 million (and returning over $130 million in box office — even with a pandemic shutting cinemas down, practically guaranteeing a sequel). But there’s also a drift toward Universal’s original idea of something more like a comic book. Even the invisibility here is the result of a slimy tech billionaire (is there any other kind?) inventing a suit that looks like a superhero costume, in a lab that looks like Christopher Nolan’s version of the bat cave.
*. This part of the movie I found less interesting, though I guess on some level all genre filmmaking blends together. After all, Whannell’s Saw collaborator James Wan directed Aquaman. Whannell didn’t want to make a superhero movie here though and I think he plays the material better to his strengths.
*. I really enjoyed Whannell’s commentary. It’s one of the better recent ones I’ve listened to. Directors aren’t always that good talking about their own work (or just talking in general). Whannell is great though, up there with John Waters, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Eli Roth.
*. I didn’t mind that the science was never explained very well, though Whannell does go into more depth on the commentary. I guess I sort of got the general principle involved in how the suit operated. What bothered me more was how that ginormous fancy house was just sitting empty for so long after Adrian’s death. I assume Adrian’s brother was in charge of the upkeep and feeding the dog, but that still seemed really strange to me.
*. I also spent a lot of time wondering about how Adrian was staying so close to Cecilia in the hospital. He even stays locked up in her room with her? Would it be that hard for her to find him then? And how would he not be showing up on the hospital’s security cameras? It’s a “Secure Treatment Center” so that means they have cops with guns but no cameras?
*. In his defence, Whannell says there are no plot holes because everything made sense in his head, and if it doesn’t make sense to critics, “too fucking bad!” But he says that in a nice way.
*. There are various angles that play to current anxieties. There’s the theme of surveillance, from the cameras in Adrian’s pad (but not in the hospital) to the way he’s always watching or stalking Cecilia. There’s the gaslighting of the girl, which gives the movie the feel of Gone Girl with the genders reversed. And of course there’s the woman who fights back against her abusive partner. This is an invisible man movie that’s really not about invisibility or the man.
*. Given the nature of today’s gender politics this latter line is hard to play and win. Here’s Adrian Martin with one negative take: “The Invisible Man, like a bunch of current movies, opportunistically presents itself as a bold statement for the era of Me Too (blablabla) – a feminist revenge tale (dig that final, assertive, Handmaid’s Tale into-camera gaze), rising up against all obstacles, all systemic disbelief in the heroine’s experience! But, in doing so, it also – almost inevitably – wimps out on other levels. A horror film about an unseeable patriarchal monster that has no sexual violence (at all) in it: unbelievable! Weak as a story on its own, internal terms; and especially weak as a cultural gesture – too politically correct by half (for once, the silly ex-fad term seems to be the exactly right one).”
*. Fair? For me, this Invisible Man is a popcorn movie and I don’t think it was really trying to cash in on any political points. Gone Girl was a popcorn movie too, but perhaps a bit more cynical about these matters.
*. Judged on the popcorn scale I think it’s a success. It moves very well, which helps with the predictable story. The two-hour running time doesn’t drag. Elisabeth Moss is solid as the bedraggled heroine, even though it’s a one-note performance. No part of it is all that interesting, we’re talking genre filmmaking 101 here, but the combination of different elements work well together and Whannell shows that he knows what he’s doing.