Invisible and Predictable
One of the ways of spotting a remake is that they often have much more on-the-nose titles than modern movies: names like The Magnificent Seven are really not fashionable these days, unless of course they carry significant audience recognition value. Such is the case when it comes to a movie like Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man. There have been so many adaptations and other productions derived from H.G. Wells' original novel that, ironically enough, nearly everybody must have seen one: there's the 1933 version with Claude Rains, the Soviet version from 1984, the TV show with David McCallum, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the other TV show with Vincent Ventresca, Abbott and Costello meet the Invisible Man, the other other TV show with Pip Donaghy, The Invisible Woman, the other other other TV show with Tim Turner, and so on.
That said, the notion almost seems to have fallen into abeyance since Paul Verhoeven's typically restrained take on the story, in 2000's Hollow Man – the only production openly acknowledging Wells was 2003's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which still took pains to make clear that it featured an Invisible Man, not the Invisible Man – well, I suppose lawyers have to eat just the same as everybody else. Whannell's Invisible Man doesn't actually credit Wells, which is odd given that the title character has the same name as the one in the novel, and also because this is supposedly the latest entry in the very-long-running Universal Monsters franchise.
Unfortunate readers unable to afford therapy may recall The Mummy from a couple of years ago – a badly botched update on another classic tale, supposedly intended to launch a new shared universe featuring the bandaged one, Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, Dr Jekyll, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on. (You may even recall Dracula Untold from a couple of years before that, which was intended to do the same thing, before being stricken from the canon for somewhat unclear reasons.) Well, so underwhelming was The Mummy's reception that Universal canned the whole idea and have gone back to doing individualised stories featuring these characters. This is, therefore, not the promised update featuring (one presumes) the voice of Johnny Depp, but something rather different.
The film opens in a lovely, super-modern cliff-top house, from which we find Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) making a clearly long-in-the-planning surreptitious nocturnal departure. Apparently her boyfriend, top optical boffin Griffin (Oscar Jackson-Cohen), is an oppressive controlling nightmare, and Cecilia just can't take it any more. So off she sneaks, in a lengthy and actually rather tense sequence. She ends up staying with James (Aldis Hodge), a cop who's a friend of her sister's, and slowly starting to lose the tension and anxiety which living with Griffin has left her with. The process of her recovery is expedited somewhat when the news breaks that Griffin has committed suicide, leaving a considerable wodge of his fortune to her. Now she can start to live again, can't she?
Well, of course she can't. Odd things start to happen around the house – objects appear and disappear inexplicably, someone starts sending emails from Cecilia's laptop, her drinks are mysteriously spiked with a strong tranquiliser. Cecilia's friends and family are sympathetic, assuming that her ordeal has resulted in her becoming a bit frayed around the edges. But Cecilia suspects something else – could Griffin still be alive and much closer to her than anyone suspects...?
Griffin is indeed the name of the Invisible Man in the original novel, but that's the beginning and the end of any resemblance to H.G. Wells – the plot is different, the emphasis is different, even the invisibility works differently (which does have a genuine impact on the story). Possibly as a result of this – and this is going to sound like a joke – the Invisible Man himself is sort of a marginal figure in his own movie, with Jackson-Cohen getting strikingly little screen-time. The focus is always on Elisabeth Moss, with the original scientific romance retooled as a fable about paranoia and stalking.
Which is all very well, but the structure of the story requires a long, slow aggregation of events before Cecilia figures out she has an unseen stalker somewhere in her vicinity. Whannell dutifully goes through with this, but the problem is that while Cecilia is thoroughly confused, for the audience there is no sense of mystery or suspense – the movie is called The Invisible Man, after all, and you would have to have your refractive index set very low indeed not to be able to work out what's going on. There is some pleasure to be gained from watching Whannell do his thing – the direction in this movie is pretty good, with Whannell particularly keen on a shot where the camera suggestively drifts off to focus on an apparently empty corner of the room, the implication being that it is actually occupied – but the first half of the movie does feel rather laborious.
It perks up a bit once Moss finally puts two and two together, and various scenes where cast members get to do their ooh-I've-just-been-punched-by-someone-invisible acting ensue. The story becomes rather involving as Cecilia's straits get progressively more and more dire: you do start to wonder if they're planning to go really dark with the ending, for once.
Well, obviously I can't go into details, but I regret to say that the mid-film recovery does not last. The Invisible Man does have a functional and reasonably satisfying climax – the problem is it goes on for another fifteen or twenty minutes after this, attempting to contrive a startling twist ending. To be honest, I felt it fumbled the conclusion rather badly: this is the kind of twist which just doesn't hang together in any real sense, doesn't even make a lot of sense on its own terms, feels deeply suspect in all kinds of ways and only really serves to make the film longer and less satisfying. The rest of it is hardly brilliant, but it's the ending which comes close to capsizing the whole undertaking.
Shame, really: Moss is quite good (although I note a proposed spin-off, a remake of The Invisible Woman, is down to be a vehicle for Elizabeth Banks, as producer, director and star), the direction is inventive, and the supporting turns are also decent. But the script just isn't quite up to scratch. It probably scores points with the Progressive Agenda Committee for finding a way to be so female-focussed, but there doesn't seem to have been any real consideration of what an audience's expectations are for a film called The Invisible Man, or how such a film should function. Not quite as bad as The Mummy, probably, but Universal continue to serve their monsters very poorly.