Unraveling the dusted bandages of H.G. Wells’ classic 1897 science-fiction novel, writer-director Leigh Whannell has refashioned “The Invisible Man” as a bracingly modern #MeToo allegory that, despite its brutal craft, rings hollow.
Our image of Wells’ villain — the white wrappings, the dark sunglasses — comes largely from James Whale’s also-classic 1933 film. This “Invisible Man” might have stayed closer to that vision had a box-office bust not interfered. After “The Mummy,” with Tom Cruise, fizzled, Universal Pictures canceled its Marvel-esque monster franchise dubbed the Dark Universe. Out went plans for Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. In came a violent, low-budget Blumhouse-produced re-imagining from the co-creator of the “Saw” franchise. The bandages and shades, needless to say, didn’t make the cut.
Instead, this “Invisible Man” has shifted its focus from Wells’ optics scientist to a woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), running from him and fleeing a toxic relationship. In the movie’s breathtaking opening (one seemingly modeled after “Sleeping With the Enemy”), she carefully, with disgust on her face, lifts the hand draped over her in bed. With barely hushed panic, she makes her well-planned nighttime escape from his bleakly modernist seaside house while the sound of waves pummeling the northern California shoreline thunder around her.
The man, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), we don’t quiet see. But we immediately get a vivid sense of his abusiveness from Cecilia’s white-knuckle fear. She takes refuge in the home of a childhood friend, a police officer (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter (Storm Reid). There, she trembles with dread at the thought of Adrian coming for her. Her intense paranoia is only momentarily relieved when she gets news that he has killed himself. But when she begins to sense an eerie presence, and notice things like an unexplained imprint on the rug, Cecilia knows that Adrian — “a world-leader in optics” capable of extreme discoveries — is still with her. “He’s not dead,” she says. “I just can’t see him.”
A pervasive terror cloaks the movie. It’s elevated considerably by Moss, an actress thoroughly at home in the most prickly, anxious and unsettling situations. Her Cecilia is a portrait of a woman desperately clawing for her freedom, but haunted by the specter, real or imagined, of her terrorizing ex. Trembling and tortured, Moss makes her stalking terrifyingly palpable.
But there’s also a sense, from early on, that “The Invisible Man” is more interested in utilizing a clever and timely conceit for jump scares and muscular, half-visible action sequences than for any genuine exploration of Cecilia’s psychology. We know, from this invisible man’s first foggy breath, that he’s there; there’s no mystery, just a perverse game of hide and seek. It takes much of the movie for Cecilia to convince anyone else of her unseen tormentor. But as Whannell turns toward the third act, the once promising set-up disintegrates and “The Invisible Man” gets lost in a familiar torrent of bullets and blood, as well as a few implausible twists that pull the movie further away from Moss’s Cecilia.
While Wells imbued his invisible man with comedy and tragedy, this one remains little more than a lethal plot device, and one so unhinged that any sense of realism vanishes. Adrian turns out to be a psychopath whose single-minded obsession with Cecilia squanders all the more intriguing capabilities of invisibility. (For that, we’ll always have “Atlanta.”) Whannell has the talent and cunning to turn “The Invisible Man” into a chilling and well-crafted B-movie. But if you’re looking for anything more than that, you’ll probably come up empty.
Rated R for some strong bloody violence and language. Two and a half stars out of four.