Editor’s note: This review was originally published for the theatrical release of “The Invisible Man.” Universal Pictures will release it early to VOD on Friday, March 20.
The following review contains minor spoilers for “The Invisible Man.”
The best genre films play on society’s most pressing fears, but in his limp reworking of H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man,” Leigh Whannell tries melding everything from gaslighting to anxieties around data privacy into a crude technological thriller that is part sci-fi, part horror, and all-around mess. Why Hollywood’s favorite unhinged woman Elisabeth Moss chose to lend her considerable talents is a mystery bigger than how her stalker ex managed to make himself invisible.
Moss plays Cecilia, annoyingly known to her friends as “C,” an anxious woman recovering from a violently abusive relationship. After narrowly escaping with her life, she hides out at the house of a male friend who also happens to be a cop. James (Aldis Hodge) lives alone with his daughter Syd (Storm Reid), and serves triple duty as host, security guard, and emotional support for his wreck of a friend. Cecilia is so terrified of Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) that she is incensed when her sister (Harriet Dyer) knocks on the door, in case she was followed. Even when Alice brings the good news that Adrian has killed himself, Cecilia still can’t breathe easy. She feels him watching her, though she can’t be sure.
It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize Cecelia isn’t crazy, at least not to herself. Whether she’s imagining it or not, the eerie signs of an actual invisible man crop up fairly quickly. The first moment of tension arrives when Cecilia, cheerfully making Syd a hot breakfast, steps out of frame to wake up the sleeping teenager. Almost imperceptibly, a knife disappears from the counter and the burner is turned up full blast, erupting in a fiery blaze. The camera remains on the kitchen as Syd and Cecilia rush back in, spraying her crispy eggs with fire extinguisher fluid. While the scene augured effective terror-building visuals, this subtle moment ends up being the film’s most interesting cinematic choice. From there on out, it’s all footprints in the carpet and creepy photo flashes in the middle of the night.
James is exceedingly patient wth his deteriorating friend, who seems to think her dead husband has found some way to be invisible and is stalking her. After all, she reminds him, Adrian was a “leader in the field of optics,” which Moss somehow manages to blurt out with a straight face. If anyone could become invisible, it’s him.
Adding to the intrigue is a trust set up by Adrian’s will, granting Cecilia a large sum of money every year for the next two decades. His creepy brother Tom (Michael Dorman) lays out the terms, which include the caveat that the agreement is null and void if she is ever convicted of a crime or proven mentally unstable. Even though she wants noting to do with Adrian, Cecilia immediately sets up a college fund for Syd.
Though Adrian’s methods grow increasingly menacing (or is it all in her head?), “The Invisible Man” lacks for truly terrifying moments. The film plays more like a thriller than a horror, with the mystery of Adrian’s powers becoming the main (and dissatisfying) reveal. The movie’s bloodiest surprise is muddled when Whannell insists on preceding it with a half-baked attempt at humor at the expense of an overly friendly waiter. (An unfortunate side effect of Jordan Peele so thoroughly changing the game with “Get Out” is that every horror writer now wants to be funny, too.)
As Cecilia grows increasingly distressed, she appears increasingly deranged to even her closest friends. When the stalker hits Syd and pins it on Cecilia, it’s game over for her with James, and she must take matters into her own hands. The analogy of the woman no one believes is all too relevant today, but it’s a cliche we’ve seen before and in far better films. The privacy fears, while less familiar territory, is treated so superficially as to be all but moot. (For a truly terrifying look at privacy, watch “The Great Hack” on Netflix.) When Cecilia paints over her computer’s camera with nail polish, despite having been married to a “leader in the field of optics,” the precautionary move is so hollow it’s laughable. A little nail polish won’t stop what we’re up against — and “The Invisible Man” certainly won’t help us make sense of it.
Universal Pictures will release “The Invisible Man” in theaters on February 28.