Rare and untypical | Daily News


The Invisible Man

Rare and untypical

Jojo Rabbit is the kind of movie a director would make with what he earned from a previous box office smash; The Invisible Man is the kind he would make with no such prelude. Leigh Whannel has already made two films, Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) and Upgrade (2018), but neither of them could make us expect a work like this. Upgrade, the better of the two, shows Leigh’s technical mastery in the midst of budgetary constraints: shot for $3 million, it grossed $16 million. In all other respects, The Invisible Man stands out; it’s one of the very few films from the recent past I can consider as unprecedented.

Superficially, it belongs to or was originally conceived as belonging to the shared cinematic universe that was supposed to begin with the mess of a Tom Cruise horror flick that was The Mummy. When the producers gave up on expanding and going ahead with the universe, they offered its sequel – an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic tale of a man consumed by egotism in pursuit of a way of becoming invisible – as a standalone story. Johnny Depp was supposed to be the star, the antagonist, and later he quit. Would that he had stayed back!

I can’t imagine what the Depp adaptation would have looked like, because Whannel’s take on the Wells classic is far beyond anything I’d expected. If it doesn’t leave one satisfied, there’s so much – beneath the surface, the hidden spaces, the concealed emotions, the minimalistic action sequences, not to mention the eerie score – that makes up for its technical failings. The special effects are nothing compared with The Mummy, and yet it offers much more than The Mummy ever could: a serious theme to think seriously about, beyond the blood, the gore, and the chases. The other recent adaptation of The Invisible Man was Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, though that stuck to the spirit of the original a little too literally: a scientist consumed by his greed for knowledge and power. Whannel doesn’t take the literal value of the story. He twists it, and springs some rather unexpected surprises on us.

The Wells story has a ring of timeless relevance to it. Wells worked on the story by placing it against the context of his time. It was a cautionary parable about the follies of playing god with nature, about the dangers of absolute power when an individual, spurred on by a belief in a greater good and a rational universe, imposes his will on everyone while disregarding the tragic, catastrophic consequences of his decisions. Whannel doesn’t make this the be-all and end-all of the plot; instead he makes invisibility the instrument of the antagonist’s obsessions. In the original tale Griffin terrorised a village, but he didn’t set out to do so originally. In this adaptation we aren’t told why Griffin – a scientist specialising in optics – wants to play god like that. Since we see the story from Cecilia’s perspective, we can only assume what she can assumes, and she assumes precious little we can verify, except that Griffin has gone invisible not to prove his discovery to the world, but to continue tormenting her: a personal vendetta divorced from all other considerations and directed purely at fulfilling itself.

In the opening sequence when Cecilia stares at a room with an empty stand – it’s literally the key to Griffin’s secret – we are as confused as she is; she doesn’t know what her boyfriend is doing, any more than we do. Much of the success of the story is in how it gets down to brass tacks and the essentials. There’s hardly any of those overdrawn explanatory dialogues we see in most other adaptations of classic horror or sci-fi stories adapted to contemporary settings. It’s not horror, it’s terror – what precedes the action, the blood, and the gore is what engages us – and here Whannel is close to the source text. Wells didn’t intend to spring cheap thrills and surprises on us; he wanted to evoke contemplation and reflection.

The early Hollywood adaptations sacrificed this aspect – even the first movie version, from 1933, gave up this contemplative quality for the action sequences – but it comes out well over here, ironically in a setting far removed from the world of not just the author, but also the directors of the first few adaptations. I won’t go ahead and reveal the plot because it must be watched in its entirety: to reveal the themes would be to raise assumptions and presumptions of how those themes have captured the original text. Suffice it to say that Whannel has picked on a particularly relevant contemporary subject, and its ending makes evident the desperation felt by all those victimised by the issue at the heart of the narrative.

It’s a wishful ending, yes, and it’s the only part of the story I objected to – no doubt critics elsewhere will object to it as well, as they have – but the compensating virtues of the film are enough for us to pass over it. Here’s a work that couldn’t be more different to The Mummy, and it scores on all counts: the actors, except for Elizabeth Moss who plays the protagonist, are all unknowns, and the story works like clockwork without exploring unnecessary subplots or getting through contrived dénouements. It’s not a whodunit the way the Wells story was, which is just as well: no whodunit means no cheap jump scares, meaning that we can actually focus on the larger themes. How Whannel gets us engaged with them all is probably the most distinguishing quality of his film. It’s a rare remake, certainly an untypical one.

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