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'The Invisible Man' (2020)

'The Invisible Man' triumphs in tension even as it drops the ball on genuine surprise for the audience.

The Invisible Man (2020)

4 / 5
3 / 5

I adore anything that has to do with H.G. Wells’ novel, The Invisible Man. The original Universal adaptation from 1933 is one of the best films of its era, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man is a fun time, and I’ll go to bat any day for Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man. These films work because they are a mixture of practical effects and digital effects, and the creativity in setting up scenes for the invisible antagonist to wreak chaos in is what makes them stand out. There is natural tension in any scene because, theoretically, the Invisible Man could be watching, waiting to make a move, and the paranoia can drive the victims and viewers batty.

That being said, I think the 2020 version of The Invisible Man masters that sense of tension better than any other adaptation that has come before it. Every scene in this movie tries to convey the sense of dread that the Invisible Man could be stalking our lead protagonist, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss). Cecilia has escaped a controlling and abusive relationship she endured at the hands of her sociopathic ex-boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After a few weeks of hiding away, Griffin apparently dies; only for Cecilia to be convinced that he’s alive and has found a way to make himself invisible with his optical technology genius.

Spoiler alert: She’s right. Don’t get mad at me — the movie is literally titled The Invisible Man.

And therein lies one of my problems with the film. It’s far too predictable and it never kept me on my toes despite its excellent execution of tension. What do I mean by that? Let me break it down.

Where Is the Invisible Man?

The problem is that we already know she’s right about her stalker ex being invisible. In several of the early invisibility scenes, no one else is on camera, so the events that happen on screen are clearly Griffin’s actions. There’s even a shot of his obvious breath right next to her as she stands outside. I wish that the little things would happen while Cecilia was doing something on screen, so that the audience would be left wondering if they imagined it, or if it was the Invisible Man, similar to the characters in the film. Make his breathing more subtle or have a knife drop behind Cecilia when she’s onscreen. Maybe, burn her breakfast as she cooks. Instead, the camera just sits in place and lets us watch it happen.

The film could have made it completely ambiguous if Griffin was stalking her, or if Cecilia was paranoid. Then, in an incredible scene halfway through the film I won’t dare spoil would function as a big reveal that Griffin is indeed invisible. A little change in the formula for these films would have been nice, and the tension would probably have worked better if it wasn’t so obvious when Griffin was present.

How Does the Invisible Man Work?

Sometimes, there’s nothing as scary as an illogical thing in a logical world. That’s the beauty of the premise of an invisible stalker. But to make that work, there have to be rules for the illogical premise, as paradoxical as it sounds. Griffin is an invisible man, not an invisible demon or some other monster. In several scenes, Griffin escapes tight knit situations without touching anything or making a sound, despite making creaking sounds on wood floors or leaving behind other signs of his presence in other scenes. It’s the same broken rule book that the Spinosaurus follows in Jurassic Park III. One minute the giant dinosaur can be heard stomping from miles away, the next it can silently sneak up on the humans.

Griffin will be whatever the plot demands. He’s not a human so much as a means to an end. He can fit through any doorway whenever he appears, he only makes sounds when the film requires him to be less sneaky, and he apparently can fight anyone with his bare hands and tank a lot of physical damage. There’s one scene where the Invisible Man is fighting a character, dragging them on the floor, and the character, a 6-foot, muscular police officer, kicks forward several times in different directions…and hits nothing. How does that make any sense? He should have made contact with the person right in front of him.

Who Is the Invisible Man?

The final problem with the film is that it once again shoots down ambiguity. This film does something very different from the other Invisible Man movies: the Invisible Man is almost always silent. Normally, he’s a chatterbox, taunting his victims and cackling maniacally as they fumble around to get him. At first, I thought it was because Griffin was smart and didn’t want to give himself away. Then, as I kept watching, I realized it was a choice: was it Griffin at all? If the Invisible Man spoke, and Cecilia realized it wasn’t Griffin, that would be a game-changer.

However, the movie doesn’t do that. In the third act, the Invisible Man speaks, and it’s clearly Griffin, and he addresses Cecilia and taunts her. It actually felt forced at that point. I was disappointed that he ended up talking. His silent approach worked for this iteration of the character and his taunts didn’t add to his intimidating aura. But the movie then throws a curve ball and taunts the audience as to whether or not the Invisible Man was Griffin or not. A twist that only serves to slow the plot down, because the audience knows it was him. The thought of his guilt/innocence would have made for a great conversation piece concerning his comeuppance. But everyone knows that the rat is guilty, and the ending is pretty straightforward.

Invisible man 2020

In terms of diversity, Invisible Man is actually pretty solid. Cecilia is the lead role, her sister plays a critical part, and their friends, the Laniers, are an African American father/daughter who serve a purpose beyond surface level inclusion. The film’s portrayal of Griffin’s horrid toxic masculinity and controlling nature, while straightforward, is a key theme of what it feels like to be in an abusive relationship in that manner. The constant feeling of being watched and controlled is a great metaphor, and probably one of the only things that keeps me from outright disliking this movie.

So that’s 2020’s The Invisible Man. I left the theater underwhelmed. The film had its moments, and I can’t say it was bad, but I can’t say I’ll remember it a few years from now. Yes, Elisabeth Moss’ performance is fantastic, even if her character ranges from clever to idiotic based on whatever the plot demands. But it’s hard to get invested in the movie’s dread or suspense when it’s blatantly obvious that whatever happens won’t be the natural course of events, but rather, a plot piece designed to spook the audience or try to get a clever twist on something that actually isn’t clever at all. It’s a tolerable movie, but I don’t feel inclined to watch it again anytime soon.

PS: It’s a shame the Universal “Dark Universe” died off. I would have loved to see a post-credits scene of Tom Cruise’s Mummy running into the Invisible Man. It would have been so bad, but so fascinating.

-Rafael A. Sarmiento