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What you can't see 

click to enlarge Elisabeth Moss in "The Invisible Man."


Elisabeth Moss in "The Invisible Man."

The power of invisibility has fascinated generations of storytellers, and it's not hard to see why. The ability to act without being seen carries with it an unlimited and alluring potential. So it's interesting that many of the most iconic variations on these stories explore the negative effect and deadly psychological impact of such power. They consider what might happen if people were able to separate themselves completely from any moral accountability, and imagine what they might be capable of if they never again had to look themselves in the eye.

Writer-director Leigh Whannell's re-envisioning of "The Invisible Man" switches up the traditional perspective, centering the story not on the person with supernatural abilities, but on what it might feel like to be their prey.

The film wastes little time, opening with our protagonist, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) making a desperate, middle-of-the-night escape from an abusive relationship with wealthy inventor Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian is an entrepreneur in advanced optics technology, and while escaping from his high-tech home, we see how Cecilia lived under constant surveillance. Even before she fears her ex's unseen presence, we see that she's used to being watched and monitored.

This "The Invisible Man" gains its power from Elisabeth Moss's extraordinarily raw performance. She allows us to see the physical, emotional, and mental toll of living with this powerful and controlling man. She gains our sympathy by earnestly playing the tragedy and horror of Cecilia's circumstances. Though I look forward to Moss taking on a role where she isn't being tormented, there's no denying she's good at portraying such suffering on screen.

Whannell (best known for co-creating the "Saw" and "Insidious" horror franchises) is a confident enough director that he doesn't feel the need to show us the abuse Cecilia faced at Adrian's hands. Everything we need to know about their relationship can be gleaned from her actions in that opening sequence, and leaving those details entirely in our minds ends up making him that much more frightening.

After her narrow getaway, Cecilia goes to stay with a cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Suffering from PTSD, she has difficulty adjusting, and finds herself struggling to adapt to a life free from her abuser. Then she receives the news that Adrian has killed himself, and left her a huge sum of money in his will.

There's a sense of relief for Cecilia, but the feeling is short-lived as she experiences increasingly strange occurrences and starts to feel she's constantly being watched. During such scenes, Whannell expertly captures the unnerving sensation of feeling eyes on you when it seems no one else is around. Soon Cecilia becomes convinced not only that her ex is still alive, but that he's found a way to make himself invisible so he can continue to stalk and torment her, gaslighting her into feeling as though she's losing her mind.

Though drastically changing the plot details, Whannell embraces the paranoia that underscored James Whale's 1933 film version of H.G. Wells' original novel. The sense that Adrian could be anywhere and capable of anything infuses his film with an underlying dread.

Whannell's ruthlessly efficient script invests the story with some real resonance, speaking to the trauma of toxic relationships, the fear of technology, and questioning when the world decides not to believe women who come forward about abuse we can't see.

Cecilia knows how unhinged she sounds when she tells people her fear that Adrian has turned invisible. The doubt that clouds the faces of those she confides in -- whether it be James, her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), or the authorities -- only serves as further torture.

Shooting the film largely in medium-long shots, Whannell (working with cinematographer Stefan Duscio) often includes a little too much negative space in his framing, drawing our eye to all the possible places Adrian might be lurking. Panning over to empty hallways and holding long enough to unnerve us, he patiently gives his audience the opportunity to dart our eyes around the screen, looking for some sign of something amiss.

The filmmaker naturally builds in some visual and thematic nods to Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. He loads the film with a number of tense and thrilling set pieces; lengthy sequences play out mostly in silence, and in general the film's sound design is wonderfully immersive and inventive. Benjamin Wallfisch's score alternates atmospheric modern electronic elements with flashes of Bernard Herrmann-esque strings.

This isn't the first time Universal Pictures has attempted a reboot of their classic Universal Monsters properties. 2017's misguided Tom Cruise vehicle, "The Mummy," was to serve as an introduction to their "Dark Universe," an extended cinematic portfolio of interconnected big-budget action horror movies utilizing characters like the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Wolfman, and many more. It didn't pan out.

Thankfully, they decided that smaller scale can be way more effective. If "The Invisible Man" is a sign of where the Dark Universe is headed -- putting these iconic characters in the hands of filmmakers as interesting as Leigh Whannell -- I'm all in to explore where these new nightmares might take us.

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to

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