The Invisible Man review: a far better way forward for the Dark Universe

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Elisabeth Moss headlines Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man, and it’s the best mainstream thriller of its ilk in ages.

Now this is much, much more like it.

Universal’s infamous attempt a few years back to launch a Dark Universe of related classic monster horror movies had all but crashed and burned by the time the credits rolled on the first of them, the Tom Cruise-headlined The Mummy. Now, after retreating to the drawing board, the studio has a better, more logical plan: scrub the universe, and instead invite filmmakers to suggest what they can do with the classic monsters archive. Stop worrying about the boxset, worry about the individual films.

Step forward then Leigh Whannell, off the back of writing and directing the little-seen but much-loved Upgrade. In conjunction with producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions stable, he’s fashioned a modestly-costly but tautly put together take on The Invisible Man. And the twist here is it’s not a horror movie at all. Instead, Whannell has – in the coating of a classic monster – quietly rebooted the 90s female-led revenge-ish thriller.

These were pretty commonplace for a stretch of time two decades ago, but to get one now – especially a really good one – feels like something of a treat.

As the film opens we meet Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia Kass. She lives in a bloody nice house with the kind of ocean view you only get in the movies. Yet the home is spacious, cold, and something’s not right. As it turns out, the thing that’s not right is lying next to her: Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Adrian. So begins a really tense sequence as she tries to slip out of the house in the middle of the night, looking to flee and build a new life.

This entire opening offers a statement of intent as to how Whannell opts to shoot his movie. He keeps many shots wide, and holds them. Sometimes, he’ll move the camera slowly to one door and back again, quietly inviting us to spot the slightest sign of movement. He doesn’t rush, and it brought to mind the wonderful It Follows in the way it chooses relative stillness as a way to build up tension, as opposed to quick cuts. It proves to be an incredibly effective tactic, and it’s one Whannell is not shy about returning to. He resists too for the most part the fallback of a jump scare, instead slowly building up pressure and constructing some superb sequences as he does so.

I don’t want to spoil where the film goes, so please appreciate that this is really quite a light dusting of the story you’re getting. But it’s pretty clear that the movie does slowly brush by The Invisible Man story and idea (although you’ll find, it’s fair to say, more slavish adaptations of the H G Wells source story elsewhere). Still, this is a very different beast to the one you may be expecting.

I found it interesting that there’s precious little in the way of overt digital effects work here, too, and when said effects are employed, I found them hugely impressive. Here’s effects work very much in the service of the story, and bumping up the effectiveness of it. There’s a corridor sequence later in the film where I kept sensing rug pulls were coming, but had no real idea where they were coming. How refreshing is that?

That said, there are narrative tramlines within which the film operates, and as much as the movie is willing to subvert the idea of what The Invisible Man story can be, it plays closer to the rules of the revenge thriller. That said, with a few surprises up its sleeve. The whole setup takes an almighty pinch of salt, I should note, but conversely, the film explains the bare essentials and moves on, and I found myself warming to that tactic in this case.

Instead, I found myself rooting for Elisabeth Moss, who is quite excellent in the lead role. Not only do you root for her, you believe her, even as her world is closing in all around her. Granted, the film is likely too mainstream or audience pleasing to ultimately interest awards bodies in ten months’ time, but find me someone else who could do what she does her quite as well as she does? She leads an ensemble hardly shy of quality – Aldis Hodges, Harriet Dyer and young Storm Reid are all very good value – and emerges as the standout.

It’s a really impressive, big mainstream movie this, a proper old-school edge of your seat thriller, directed with a real sense of confidence in the material, and an implicit trust in its audience. The score’s really good, too.

Perhaps it runs just a little long, if I had my pickiest pair of pants on, but that notwithstanding, this is the best thriller in ages from Hollywood.

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