'Invisible Man' turns H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic into a chilling domestic violence parable

The invisible antagonist who torments Cecilia is not just one man, but a network of assumptions about who is a reliable witness and who is not.
Image: Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.Universal Pictures
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By Noah Berlatsky

H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man" from 1897 is one of the founding mad scientist narratives. The mysterious and surly Griffin learns how to make himself invisible, and proceeds to terrorize a good honest English town. It's a quaint and somewhat dated tale, in need of an update — which director Leigh Whannell's new Blumhouse film brilliantly provides. Rather than a hoary story about the dangers of forbidden knowledge, the 2020 version of "Invisible Man" is a terrifying, timely story about domestic violence, patriarchy and the horror that results when we refuse to believe women.

The 2020 version of "Invisible Man" is a terrifying, timely story about domestic violence, patriarchy and the horror that results when we refuse to believe women.

The literally invisible man in this version of the story is AG, aka Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a mega-wealthy scientist who specializes in optics and the manipulation of light. When his wife Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) flees their abusive relationship, Griffin fakes his own death and begins to stalk her using an invisibility suit of his own invention. As an omnipresent ghost, Griffin is able to destroy Cecilia's relationship with her sister and friends. As she continues to insist Adrian is alive, they begin to suspect she is insane.

The movie's success is in large part attributable to Moss, who spends large chunks of the film expressing terror, weariness, cunning, or desperate strength in the face of an invisible foil. She’s made great use of silence and her sharp, expressive, distinctive features in the Hulu series "The Handmaid's Tale," but her work here is even more impressive. She'd be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination if "Invisible Man" were a prestige drama, rather than a genre horror flick.

But Moss' acting tour de force is only possible because of Whannell's canny storytelling. In most versions of the "Invisible Man,” the narrative focuses mostly on the title character. For example, Paul Verhoeven's 2000 "Hollow Man" is centered, throughout its first half, on the bad-boy inventor played by Kevin Bacon. Even after he becomes invisible, he's more often than not wearing a mask; we can still see him plot and kill.

Not so in the 2020 movie; Jackson-Cohen is barely onscreen. Instead Whannell takes a page from Blumhouse’s extremely successful “Paranormal Activity” franchise, in which the lo-fi special effects provide a horror of subtle implications. We see AG only through his works: a burner turned up to burn eggs, a puff of breath in the cold, footprints on a sheet — or more dramatically, a throat slit or a gun hanging in midair. From our perspective, which is the perspective of his victims, AG is not really a mad scientist, because we never see him doing science. Instead, he's a ghost. The invisible man is nowhere and everywhere, a malevolent, unstoppable, permeating force.

Turning AG from a man into a nightmare is, as a metaphor for domestic violence, the most realistic aspect of the movie.

Turning AG from a man into a nightmare is, as a metaphor for domestic violence, the most realistic aspect of the movie. AG was obsessed with control; Cecilia says that he wanted to regulate her actions, her speech and most frighteningly, her thoughts. Even before he vanished, AG was an invisible presence in Cecilia's head. He hurts Cecilia so effectively because he has infiltrated the space behind her own eyes.

There are parallels here to the classic 1944 film "Gaslight," about a man who bullies and manipulates his wife into thinking that she is going crazy. But the fantastic elements in "Invisible Man" make AG even more powerful and inescapable. Cecilia is not just haunted but possessed — and not just after her stalker becomes invisible. The first scenes of the movie, in which a terrified Cecilia sneaks out of AG's bed and home, echoes the terror of the rest of the film.

AG is terrifying because he's inside Cecilia’s head. But this psychological game cuts both ways. He's able to stalk her and terrorize her because others — her friends, her family, the authorities — don't believe her when she says she is a target. The invisible antagonist who torments Cecilia is not just one man, but a network of assumptions about who is a reliable witness and who is not.

AG isn't just AG, the stalker. He's also the invisible structure of patriarchy — a sinister truth the film underlines by introducing AG's twin brother Tom (Michael Dorman). Tom handles his brother's estate after AG is presumed dead, and conveys his wishes and his spite to Cecelia. Knowingly or unknowingly, Tom works with AG, making Cecilia feel, if not see, the blank malevolence of patriarchy.

Wells' original novel ends when good, average, salt of the earth English people band together to take down the antisocial, misfit evil genius. The law triumphs and order is restored. The conclusion of the 2020 "Invisible Man" is less convincing because its villain is so much more powerful. Taking down a guy with a gimmick isn't hard. But the villain in the new film isn't just one man. He's the belief that men should have control. Which is why, even when the lights go up and you leave the theater, you can still feel AG looking over your shoulder, and hear his footsteps behind you.