The Invisible Man

(Leigh Whannell, USA, 2020)


I was drawn to The Invisible Man because scattered remarks online led me to expect it would be a 21st century version of Sidney J. Furie’s classic The Entity (1982): unseen creature as figure (in all senses) of patriarchy. Plus: the challenge for filmmakers of showing (figuring in that sense, too) what is invisible – that usually brings out their most inventive creative response.


Wrong. And wrong.


Leigh Whannell’s film (I remember seeing him in the gung-ho student SF-horror film Stygian by his sometime collaborator James Wan back in Melbourne in 2000) is a very tame version of an Entity-type premise. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss, twitching and looking stunned as she inches along alone in the frame most of the time) has managed to flee from cold total-controller Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and from their ultra-North by Northwest-looking modernist mansion, with its cool lighting, excessive space and floor-to-ceiling windows. Oh, and not forgetting a few distant glimpses, in the early scenes, of mysterious looking gadgets in strange, laboratorial rooms. What’s that all-important fact we got a glimpse of just then? Oh yes, Adrian is into optics. That is going to explain a lot, or so the filmmakers hope …


Cecilia is free. And to allay her lingering paranoia, here’s some further news: Adrian is dead. His unpleasant lawyer brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), bears this word, and also has the papers for her to sign: a lifelong fortune is now hers, in instalments. But then strange things begin happening, the kinds of signs and disturbances that Fred Walton conveyed so chillingly (and on a so much lower budget) in the indelible When a Stranger Calls Back (1993): objects are not in their right place, long lost things are turning up found, a door is ajar … In some of these (as they say) “quieter” moments of the uncanny – which also seem like a Shyamalan-related speciality-trademark of the reigning production entity, Blumhouse – the film maintains reasonable intrigue, for a little while.


At a certain point, Cecilia discovers (the “delayed reveal” on this is clumsily handled) that she’s pregnant. But don’t start tripping (as I did!) on recollections of the frightening invisible-rape sequences in The Entity: there’s a confused backstory to be unravelled here about the birth control she surreptitiously took while with Adrian, and the counter-move he made in relation to that. (You may be getting the hint about how much of this narrative is off-screen, unvisualised – and not in a good way.) The deranged, quasi-Kubrickian, paternal anxiety about this child-to-be sends our now ubiquitously resident Invisible Man into increasingly violent stratagems and rages – and that’s where, quietness section over in this interminable two hours, Whannel gets into the whacks, punches, knife-slittings and giddy camera-harnessed-to-body falls that (in that last case) he spread around his more energetically built Upgrade (2018).


The beast is invisible, so we are watching a digital pantomime of visible bodies (i.e., the one’s he’s attacking) thrown, squashed, pushed, pulled, shot, stabbed, etc. There’s lot of this frantic animation. Cops, doctors, everybody’s going down (it’s the usual “they’re dead, so just forget about ‘em” sleight-of-hand manner of slick and spectacular action-horror entertainments). But how about that filmmaking challenge – how are we (let alone Cecilia) to see or sense, in whatever way, what cannot be literally, normally seen? Where are the imprints, the traces, the vibrations and perturbations that Sidney Furie conveyed and explored so beautifully, in and for cinema? What about those invisible hands kneading skin – the one image from The Entity that literally nobody can ever erase from their heads?


There is nothing, none of any of this in The Invisible Man! The only way (until a ponderously flagged fire extinguisher comes briefly into play) that the Villain ever becomes briefly visible is when – get this – his suit malfunctions! So the optics (however the heck they are meant to work, don’t ask me, or the people who made the film) flicker on and off, without rhyme or reason. Half of a (masked) body appears. Voilà, now we can start smashing, shooting and slicing the guy up, in return! It’s all so weakly conceptualised on this level – even a relatively minor film in the Paul Verhoeven canon, Hollow Man (2000), has much more up its sleeve in terms of a similar challenge of inventive figuration (beyond what is possible in the special effects department).


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).


Oh, and there’s also an attempt at several twisty, ambiguous plot revelations involving love, death and money crammed into the final stages of the story – maybe to make up for everything hardly seen or dramatised earlier on. They didn’t work well on me, but I won’t spoil them for you. O lucky you!

© Adrian Martin 21 March 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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