Illusions of Relevance in The Invisible Man (2020)

“It is wonderful how little a man can do alone!”

-H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man

H.G. Wells pit the instinct to be social against the desire for technological conquests in The Invisible Man, a book that was interesting most of all because the sociopathic techno-murderer was the protagonist. Leigh Whannell reconceived its agoraphobic Gothicism as a modern thriller, pitting a normal girl against the terrors of that epicurean ego, who has created the ultimate technological testament to his worldview. Invisibility, for both Wells and Whannell, is a stand-in for immunity. This new incarnation of The Invisible Man reduces Wells’ moralism to a more socially practical premise: to identify the rich white male as the immune class and redeem the world of his personality. The problem is the film’s lack of ambition in backing up the dramatic effect of that message with the catharsis of a logical thriller, even a basic one. By replacing a coherent progression with expository statements of purpose, Whannell’s pleas for social relevance devolve to a desperate smokescreen covering up a lack of tension with a monetizable bottom line, like an inventor selling a creation on its intent regardless of its function.

The first blunder is in the first act when Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) begins her new life outside the toxic influence of her former lover, the optics tech mogul, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Over the span of one edit, Cecilia goes from the house of her cautious caretaker, James (Aldis Hodge), to a high-rise in the heart of downtown in a meeting with Adrian’s brother (Michael Dorman), who issues her an inheritance after Adrian’s alleged suicide. The issue is that Cecilia’s only character trait up to that point had been debilitating agoraphobia (getting the mail is met with loving applause; since leaving Adrian, that was the furthest she had ventured beyond the house). Without showing her leave the house, get in the car, drive on the highway, park, get into the city, into the elevator, go up to the top floor, or sit down for the meeting overlooking the busy city below, the film cuts from the house to the meeting. In one edit, Whannell demotes the only trait established for her up to that point to the status of a perfunctory set-up aesthetic, a pacing effect rather than an actual trait.

The unbelievability of that non-transition represents the script’s overall impression that characters vanish from existence when they’re not on-screen. Their personalities don’t bleed between the lines of events because they have no identity beyond the character tropes they fulfill from conversation to conversation. Cecilia was agoraphobic at first because that was the character trope she initially fulfilled, which vanishes without a trace when it's no longer needed. The screenplay relies on propelling the plot through twists that change between these tropes, using ominous expectations in the place of dramatic interactions. Instead, the film leans on Moss to use exposition to imply them, making her seem more like the engine powering a cheap machine than the valued representative of a vital new invention.

The film makes no secret of its social context by casting Moss, whose appeal has always been her unassuming normalness, in the role of a pursued object of desire and proposed breeding mare by an overcontrolling tech guru. But the film relies solely on stating these constructs as exposition to bring them across in a film that rarely demonstrates anything except its mechanical plot changes. Whannell’s apparent desire for deeper context weaponizes Moss, who can deliver a molten monologue with half a breath and teary eyes. But nothing ever develops from them beyond the obvious, and even the obvious tropes struggle to materialize meaningfully with Whannell’s plot logic in the way. Desperate to motivate the film forward at all times, situations occur and release at random in The Invisible Man in service to whatever beat of tension Whannell seems to believe it “should” be at that moment. This leads to constant yet momentary lapses when things happen conveniently instead of logically.

The main setup crucially uses negative space to evoke feelings of paranoia, as Cecilia detects without evidence the presence of a thumping voyeur wandering the house with her. As unexplained things begin to occur, tailored to make her look bad, she becomes convinced that Adrian is still alive. The progression of information in this situation destabilizes its intentions because Whannell never quite figures out how to organically reveal or change the conditions of this effective setup. For instance, when dumping a bucket of paint onto her assailant, revealing him, Cecilia goes after him too slowly to capitalize on her ingenuity. She hears the faucet turn on, turns, and sees the sink filled with paint before being grabbed from behind, as though he could wash the paint from 200 camera lenses in 2 seconds and doesn’t even have water droplets on him another 2 seconds later. Whannell just wants you to swallow that in the same way that he tries to explain how a 180-pound man might move silently on a wood floor but neglects to mention how a rickety attic ladder doesn’t creak under his weight. He holds Cecilia on the ground but in a way that her arms are still free to hit him with dinner plates. Where is he holding her down from? The film treats invisibility like non-existence, giving credence to some of the cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s creative use of negative space to weaponize Moss’s paranoid gaze but negating the film’s physical reality. Her assailant should only be invisible; the screenplay gives him an “everything proof” shield instead because it’s not mentally up to the task of contextualizing anything less.

Without self-editing for potential contingencies or the audience’s perception of the physical rules of the situation, Whannell makes tension a tall order in The Invisible Man. His thought process prioritizes effect over substance so frequently that suspense becomes a formality, the feeling the viewer “should” be having, rather than a natural development of organic observations. The result is a film too desperate to leave an impression to form a compelling argument. Its digestibility relies on laser-focused attention to the plot, but any major changes, such as a late shift in the rules at a mental asylum, challenge the film’s previous expository tension substitutes, necessitating new ones.

Meanwhile, Moss stands hunched in a worried void where the more contrived the action, the more her natural intensity feels like overcompensation. In the absence of a more complex character, the viewer has to take the script’s obvious intent for her on faith. Ironically, Jackson-Cohen's performance is more nuanced, leading to questions about the events that can only be answered by what the viewer knows the script is intending to say, rather than by any context provided by the action. Whannell relies on the viewer accepting all nuance suspiciously, so the good guys are always discernible by their made-for-TV simplicity. One double meaning in the dialogue is enough to spot a murderer.

This is evident in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, which are all moments of character-building levity. The film was pared down to its beats, leaving only the thrilling moments to carry the struggle to turn Wells’ cautionary tale of ambition over basic decency into a modern gender fable. Yet as much as the remake relies on the premise that Cecilia is being gaslit into believing she’s crazy, the viewer never has any reason to doubt her. When the film over-expresses its complexity by blindsiding the audience with nonsensical contradictions in either character traits or physical details, it’s the viewer who feels gaslit – gaslit into taking statements of fact as equal to dramatic intrigue out of blind faith in the intelligence of the screenwriter with which they’re in a devoted two-hour relationship. Cecilia sees the signs of deception and leaves before it gets worse, giving her a leg up on a stubborn viewer. We’re known for sticking it out no matter what.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures

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