The Invisible Man

(R)

Three and a half out of four starsAdapted into six feature films and just as many TV shows, H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel “The Invisible Man” is among the most revered in the science fiction canon. It’s also a work that will inspire generations of storytellers ad infinitum.

As with Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Invisible Man” can and has been retooled into multiple scenarios, and writer/director Leigh Whannell’s bold new version is a perfect fit for the 21st century psychological horror/stalker/thriller genre.

Taking five minutes to accomplish what the vaguely similar “Sleeping with the Enemy” needed 97 to do only half as well, Whannell’s nerve-wracking, tight-as-a-drum exercise in terror gets right to the point and never once gives the audience a chance to catch its breath.

Fully awake and getting out of bed in the wee hours of the morning and escaping from the fortress of a home occupied with her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the frazzled Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has been planning this for a good while. Barely getting away with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia then begins exhibiting the most severe of PTSD conditions, which makes just leaving the house she eventually shares with close friend (and police detective) James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) a practically insurmountable challenge.

Things take a somewhat positive turn when Emily informs Cecilia that Adrian has committed suicide and has willed her $5 million, something which doesn’t sit well with his taciturn brother (and attorney) Tom (Michael Dorman). However, this windfall comes with a catch. If Cecilia commits a crime before the $100,000 per month payment plan ends, she must forfeit the remainder of the inheritance.

In the first of a few nods to the original novel, Adrian is a mad genius whose work in a wisely-left-fuzzy field of science as explained by Cecilia might allow him the opportunity to become invisible. Even though Tom has Adrian’s ashes in an urn and possesses a photo of his death scene, Cecilia remains understandably paranoid. Adrian’s iron will and long history of mental abuse leaves Cecilia to think he wouldn’t be beyond faking his own demise and pressuring the malleable Tom to go along with the ruse.

At this point, we’re only 30 minutes or so into the two-hour production and Whannell has done a superb job of roping us in, not giving too much away and – most importantly – making the idea of a man becoming invisible entirely plausible. It helps that we’ve only seen Adrian on screen for about 10 seconds total during this opening salvo.

Cutting his teeth as the screenwriter on the first three “Saw” installments and the entire “Insidious” franchise, Whannell wowed critics and audiences alike with the 2018 dystopian “Upgrade,” which was as much science fiction as it was horror. Including only as much sci-fi and graphic horror as needed here, Whannell emphasizes minimalism, silence, ambient music and blocking.

Appearing in virtually every scene, Moss is often shown on the right or the left side of the frame acting opposite nothing. Reacting to something or someone who is not only not seen but also not heard presents a massive challenge — not just to Moss but also for Whannell, who must make the audience think there’s something there.

This is not nearly as easy as it might seem. The rub here is that no one besides Cecilia believes in or is even swayed by this imaginary being, and it pushes her into deeper madness. Things happen, people die and Cecilia is blaming it on someone who is not only not visible but also dead.

This impressive and nearly-improbable method of storytelling can only be taken so far before it can turn into possible parody, and Whannell waits as long as he can to metaphorically let some of the air out of the balloon. With 30 minutes to go, he delivers the first of a handful of wicked twists (each better than the last), and we don’t get the big picture and full scope until the final minute of the film.

Universal went to great lengths to screen the movie in a theater with “Dolby Cinema” – a format sporting the latest state-of-the-art “deep black” visuals and bone-rattling sound, and it was a wise choice. Even though a great deal of the movie features bare-bones audio, the creepy and ominous score by Benjamin Wallfisch (recalling Nine Inch Nails and the Dust Brothers from “Se7en”) is a de facto character in the story and it greatly adds to Cecilia’s ever-increasing and mounting mental anguish.

(Universal)

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