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Non-Review Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man makes his victims visible.

Freed from the confines of the ill-fated blockbuster “Dark Universe”, writer and director Leigh Whannell is able to craft a version of the iconic H.G. Wells story that speaks to the modern moment and which taps into a set of fears that are a lot easier to acknowledge these days. Horror stories have always worked best as allegories for the things that unsettle a society – even back to the sexual anxieties of Dracula and the monstrous procreation of Frankenstein – as so Whannell reconfigures The Invisible Man to speak to a terror that was largely invisible until recently.

Ringing true.

The central protagonist of The Invisible Man is not the eponymous translucent figure. Appropriately enough, the man who turns himself invisible is largely marginalised by the narrative. In the opening ten minutes, he’s glimpsed lying in bed and then through a car window, but his face is consciously obscured. Through the rest of the film, he is largely present in a few photographs and acting through his brother as a proxy. His absence is both clever and effective, underscoring the extent to which he dominates and haunts the film even when he is off-screen.

Instead, The Invisible Man is built around Cecilia Kass. It remains tightly focused on her efforts to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend, even after his apparent suicide. The Invisible Man suggests that such trauma cannot easily be evaded and eluded. “Adrian will haunt you, if you let him,” one of Cecilia’s friends warns her. The Invisible Man argues that he’ll haunt her either way.

Interrogating assumptions.

The Invisible Man is not a particular subtle piece of metaphor. Then again, it doesn’t have to be. One of the movie’s most unsettling and effective scenes doesn’t involve any supernatural or science-fiction elements. The opening few minutes are given over to Cecilia’s escape from Adrian. It’s one of the most tense sequences in recent memory. Whannell communicates a lot very quickly and effectively, without recourse to expository dialogue; Cecilia’s desperate drugging of Adrian with diazepam, the internal security cameras that watch her ever move, the alarm system designed to keep her in as much as anybody out.

The sequence is a master class in tension, with Adrian serving as something of a sleeping monster. As Cecilia creeps through the house, Whannell’s camera remains tightly focused on negative space. The camera horizontally pans through their spacious modern home, as if to suggest that Adrian is lurking in the shadows, even when a glance at her phone screen confirms he is still lying in the bed. This is the power that Adrian holds over Cecilia. Even drugged and unconscious, his presence is keenly felt. The Invisible Man features several crackerjack sequences, but none as unsettling as that opening beat.

The Invisible Man feels very much of a piece with Whannel’s last low-budget science-fiction horror film, Upgrade. Adrian’s clifftop house in The Invisible Man recalls the sleak modernist design of Eron Keen’s estate in Upgrade. The central conceit of The Invisible Man requires the same sort of surreal one-actor stuntwork that defined Upgrade, where a lot of the visual power of the set pieces comes from watching a body doing something that it should not be able to do unassisted. More to the point, The Invisible Man and Upgrade both tap into anxieties about the modern technology industry.

Historically, adaptations of The Invisible Man have focused on biological explanations for the invisibility. Indeed, some stories even go so far as to suggest that that the process has some impact on the subject’s neorochemistry, to account for his inevitable immorality. (This is often the case in indirect adaptations, like Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man.) In contrast, Whannell immediately contextualises The Invisible Man as a product of technology. Adrian is described as an “optics pioneer” and a “world-leader in optics.” He lives and operates in San Francisco. His basement functions as a personal computer laboratory.

Now you see me.

This is a canny piece of modernisation on a number of levels. Most obviously, it taps into the tech industry’s long-standing issues around the treatment of women. (More broadly, it also taps into the attitude towards women that have taken root in the so-called “rationalist” communities that are often rooted around tech.) The Invisible Man even contextualises Cecilia’s relationship to Adrian in such terms. “Why did you choose me?” Cecilia asks at one point. After all, he could have had anyone. Money and power would have allowed Adrian to “buy people.”

In a later conversation, almost as a direct response to a question he could not possibly have heard, Adrian’s brother Tom seems to offer an explanation. “You didn’t need him,” Tom tells Cecelia. Adrian was so invested in controlling and dominating Cecilia because she resisted him, because she existed outside his world. The Invisible Man ultimately positions such abuse and manipulation as a grotesque extension of capitalism. Indeed, The Invisible Man keeps coming back to Adrian’s attempts to own Cecelia, whether through a five million dollar trust after his death or in attempts to assert direct control over her body.

However, the tech industry setting of The Invisible Man does more than extend a criticism of the contemporary face of hypermasculine hypercapitalism. When Cecelia does get a look at some of the projects that Adrian was working on before his death, she discovers a mysterious suit. The suit is interesting. Its surface is comprised entirely of cameras. Those cameras are constantly adjusting and focusing, moving and buzzing. They resemble nothing so much as hundreds of eyes staring outwards.

Logically, this is just an explanation of the mechanics invisibility – the cameras take in the light and project it out again to create the illusion of empty space, allowing light to indirectly pass through the object. However, metaphorically, they serve to weaponise the male gaze. Adrian has built a suit that does nothing but look. It consumes everything. It watches everything. The entire world exists to be consumed by its gaze, processed, and spit back out. It is a potent visual metaphor on a number of levels.

Smashing expectations.

Most obviously, it ties into the way that Whannell subtly reworks the tropes of The Invisible Man as an allegory for an abusive relationship. As Cecelia comes to suspect that Adrian isn’t dead, her life begins to unravel. Things start happening for which she cannot account. The other characters around her experience different versions of events; a bitter email is sent from her account to her sister Emily, the young Sydney is brutally slapped when Cecelia is the only other person in the room, important files go missing from her portfolio before a job interview. All of these serve to undermine Cecelia’s sense of reality.

Cecilia comes to suspect that Adrian is somehow gaslighting her from beyond the grave. Reality becomes fungible, leading to moments where Tom offers the kind of surreal application of Occam’s Razor that is only possible in this sort of horror movie. “The only thing more brilliant than inventing a suit that makes him invisible is not inventing it, and making you think that he had,” Tom warns Cecelia. Both Tom and Cecelia agree that the true genius of Adrian lay not in the field of optics, but in the ability to “get inside your head.” There’s a sense in which Cecelia will forever carry Adrian and his abuse with her.

Whannell underscores this with an emphasis on cameras and footage. From the outset, The Invisible Man is built around the idea of tangible documents, objects that actually exist and offer verifiable proof of reality – video footage, photographs, legal agreements. Of course, the world is so topsy turvy, and Adrian operating at a level of such power, that all of these bend to his whims. Cecelia’s experience is not accounted for in any of those documents, because Adrian has always been careful enough to ensure that his abuse occurs in the negative space. After all, domestic abuse is at once incredibly prevalent and entirely invisible.

This gets at the other clever aspect of the redesign of the “invisible man” concept as a literalisation of the male gaze. The Invisible Man is very consciously designed to evoke its title character, even during the long periods of his absence. Adrian’s house is a full of empty spaces and big glass windows opening out on to the Pacific Ocean. This is the paradox of it all, the illusion of space and freedom within an invisible prison. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score and Stefan Duscio’s cinematography enhance the sense of cold detachment that runs through the film, further emphasised through Whannell’s use of steadycam and static shots.

A breath of fresh air.

However, the most effective aspect of Whannell’s direction is the way in which he repeatedly blurs the line between his gaze and that of the eponymous monster. The Invisible Man makes spectacular use of negative space, often consciously and deliberately drawing the audience’s attention to places within the shot where Adrian could be hiding. Whannell will repeatedly turn the camera away from characters and towards dark, empty hallways or quiet corners of the room. It initially seems like Whannell is suggesting Adrian’s presence, even when he cannot logically be present.

As the film progresses, this approach becomes more and more pointed. While Whannell keeps the camera largely stationary and passive, he repeatedly draws attention to its presence as a physical object in the film – most notably as a physical object watching the film. The first of the film’s vertical pan comes as Cecelia is quickly getting changed during her escape, the pan designed as a literal averting of the male gaze. Later on, as Cecelia seeks refuge with her sister’s friend James, the camera is often positioned peering around corners and lurking in doorways.

During one early encounter with the eponymous menace, Whannell puts the camera in the monster’s perspective; as the audience watches Cecilia sleeping in bed, a the flash of a camera emanates from the camera’s position. It’s a startlingly unsettling scene, and not just because of the obvious creepiness of watching a woman sleeping without her consent. It is unsettling because it places the audience in the perspective of the monster. More than that, it invites the audience to wonder just how much of the movie they have spent looking at Cecelia through Adrian’s eyes. It’s not clear, and is more uncomfortable for that.

To be fair, The Invisible Man isn’t just a very clever modernisation of the classic monster movie format that plays with the idea of the (literally) invisible male gaze. It’s also a staggeringly well-composed horror movie in its own right. Elizabeth Moss is tasked with carrying the bulk of The Invisible Man, as the only actor on screen for most of its runtime, and she does a fantastic job. Whannell leans heavily into practical effects, which play up the uncanny quality of the film’s horror. The stunt work is impressive.

Invisible proof.

The film’s climactic action sequences are also very effective in their own right, with Whannell channelling James Cameron’s work on both Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Appropriately enough, it seems like The Invisible Man seems to split the difference between the two in terms of production value; the film retains the intimacy of the original Terminator, but the sleakness of Judgment Day. Whannell also structures the movie remarkably well, employing a very effective false climax that offers suitable spectacle before providing an actual conclusion that pays off the film’s key emotional arcs.

The Invisible Man is well worth seeing.

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