Make no mistake — “The Invisible Man” is a true story. When one considers its source material, an 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, this sounds like a wild claim. After all, nobody (that we know of) can become invisible, even centuries after the original book was published. Yet, this 2020 remake, which at first glance appears to be another desperate Hollywood cash-grab, is more true to life than most other offerings at the movies today.
While the particulars of what Cecilia, played by Elizabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), endures are science fiction, they are simply imaginative means to a very real end. Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, “The Haunting of Hill House”), a wealthy inventor and Cecilia’s abusive ex-husband, is so inflamed by Cecilia leaving him that he terrorizes her by turning invisible. The invisibility is fantasy, but Adrian’s arrogance, emotional manipulation and violence, which come from a deep, white-male privilege, are anything but. This gives the movie’s already well-made scares a core of indelible truth, making the story feel truly real.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell (“Upgrade”) throws the viewer into Cecilia’s situation with razor sharp efficiency. The grungy, gray-soaked cinematography turns even the sunniest of days into something terrifying, making viewers wonder what lurks in every shadow. Sometimes the camera lingers on stillness, like a rack of knives or sheets in a dark bedroom, leaving the viewer waiting, breathless, like Cecilia. Waiting for what they know is coming but can’t possibly see until it’s too late.
The soundtrack crawls deep under one’s skin and stays there, coloring the visible horrors with stomach-churning blasts of unnerving synth. The script oozes with hand-wringing tension that never lets up, providing gut punch twists that blast the story forward even when it already seems to be hurtling at an impossibly high speed. Moss, as always, gives an immaculate performance that has one’s sympathies from the very start, ratcheting up the tension in every possible moment. For most other actors, a scene where a character is beaten up by an invisible man would be awkward at best, hilarious at worst. In Moss’s hands, it is one of the scariest, most heart-wrenching scenes in recent memory. “The Invisible Man” is no haunted house attraction, and you will be sickened, afraid and exhausted once it’s over.
Horror this stupendous does not come around often. The movie is not for the faint of heart, but should be seen by anyone who can stomach it. It’s especially satisfying once Cecilia fights back, giving viewers a look at something that rarely happens offscreen — a rich, white, male predator brought to justice. From film directors to the Commander in Chief, many of these abusers stay invisible even when their crimes are in plain sight, hidden behind their privilege. Others are only unmasked after vast swaths of damage have already occurred and, because of their status, can stay relatively invisible, unscathed by the harsh justice they deserve. It’s satisfying to see one of these monsters put through the wringer, even if only on the silver screen.
“The Invisible Man” is a marathon of scares and heart, proving, like “Get Out,” “The Babadook” and “The Witch” before it, that horror can be one of the most meaningful, optimistic and authentic genres. It also may be the most vital — even in 2020, America still needs to learn that the monster never, ever should get away with it.