If you ever feel bad about a plan that didn’t pan out, do yourself a favor and look up Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe. After Marvel made eleventy billion dollars with their cinematic universe, Universal decided to jump in on a sure thing and create a universe out of their most valuable properties—the, uh, classic monster movies from the early 20th century. Despite warnings from the entire Internet, Universal went ahead with the idea. Within a single year, nine movies were planned and cast, multiple screenplays were written, and marketing teams prepared everything from a logo to a theme song. And then 2017’s The Mummy was released and it was terrible and Universal scrapped everything. Best-laid plans and all that. Thankfully, horror studio Blumhouse stepped in with the business sense to make one good movie for every ten profitable failures, and thus The Invisible Man was born.
This iteration of The Invisible Man has very little in common with the H. G. Wells novel, or the 1933 film, or even the Dark Universe version that never came to fruition. It’s a standalone allegory for abusive relationships and PTSD—pretty much the opposite of a corny universe gimmick. Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, a woman who escapes her abusive partner only to be tormented by his invisible form. The movie was written and directed by Leigh Whannell, whom you might’ve seen chained to a pipe in the original Saw (which he also wrote).
Whannell’s attachment to pulpy affairs like Saw and Upgrade is a legitimate cause for concern: abuse isn’t the subject for body horror and grim comedy, and approaching the topic inappropriately could feel hugely disrespectful. Get a few minutes into The Invisible Man, though, and that concern dissipates quickly. The movie opens with a scene that could take its place among the annals of pure horror cinema—a tense, silent, haunting montage of Cecilia escaping her partner’s home. The scene dispenses feeling and information with subtle precision: the man’s mere presence is shot and scored ominously; Moss’ performance is in turns timid, desperate, and determined; and the camera pulls back for wide shots that accentuate the danger of a space that isn’t yours, whether it’s a bed, a house, or a relationship. It’s a monster movie in an explicitly human sense.
When the abusive scientist turns himself invisible and commences the more literal monster movie, The Invisible Man manages to walk the tightrope of its subject matter without flailing. Aside from his violent and manipulative side, the scientist’s personality is kept a mystery—even his face is obscured in early shots—so that he’s less an abuser and more the personification of abuse. This allows the movie to turn him into a supernatural villain without cheapening the message: he was more symbol than human in the first place, and it doesn’t feel reductive to demonize a demon.
The Invisible Man nearly falls off its tightrope in the second act when the protagonists start tossing the word “invisible” around. It’s hard to take the allegory seriously when invisibility is being discussed straight-faced. But the movie recovers by turning around and walking to the other end of the tightrope—the broadly entertaining horror movie. The central metaphor eludes the movie’s grasp as it recalibrates to twists, shocks, and surprises, but that’s probably for the better: if invisibility continued to represent the disbelief of a woman’s fears and PTSD, the third act would be metaphorically nonsensical, bordering on offensive. Instead, subtext is (temporarily) overlooked and scary set pieces reign supreme.
This makes the third act less meaningful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less good—the third act is less good for other reasons. The gaps in logic, previously annoying but forgivable, become too much to bear, and the shock and awe isn’t handled as expertly as the suspense. The transition into marketable horror-action feels more like studio concession than artistic decision. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s a far sight less interesting than the potential that the movie was living up to before. By the time The Invisible Man wraps up and jumps off its tightrope, you’ll marvel at how well it maintained balance throughout, but you’ll also realize that it was only ever a few feet above the ground. The greatest risks are left untaken.