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Sci-fi Technology and Victim Shaming Fuel Scares in ‘Invisible Man’

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A high concept, brutally taut modernization of the classic H.G. Wells novel of the same name, “The Invisible Man” is a top-tier horror movie that ultimately rests on the shoulders of Elisabeth Moss’ astounding performance.

Written and directed by Leigh Wannell (“Upgrade,” “Insidious: Chapter 3”), the latest in a series of “Invisible Man” adaptations impresses with its modern sci-fi/horror rebrand, as well as telling the story from a new perspective. 

Moss (“Her Smell,” “Mad Men”) plays Cecilia Kass, a young woman who escapes from a nightmare relationship with young scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Griffin is a hotshot young scientist and the founder of Cobalt Tech, a wildly successful (and fictional) fiber-optics company.

The film opens with Cecilia’s daring nighttime escape through a gorgeous seaside mansion. Timing her movements with the claps of a thunderstorm, Cecilia weaves through the house, disarming alarms, grabbing her premade escape bag and reprogramming security cameras as she mounts her escape.

With some help from her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia evades Adrian and goes into hiding, staying with her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) until she’s confident Adrian won’t find her. 

Shortly after Cecilia goes into hiding, she receives shocking news: Adrian has committed suicide, and bequeathed her a significant amount of money in his will. Cecilia isn’t convinced — she’s confident Adrian wouldn’t kill himself, especially not over her. She suspects Adrian’s reaction to her leaving would be anger, not sadness.

Still, Cecilia takes the money, using part of it to set up a college fund for Sydney to thank her and James for taking her in. Even in the film’s most relaxed scenes, Moss is doing high level work as Cecilia. 

Her performance captures the paranoia and pain victims of abuse are left with, but Moss also plays Cecilia with the determination and optimism of a woman who believes she might have successfully escaped her abuser for good.

Soon enough though, Cecilia starts finding herself terrorized by a seemingly invisible threat. It starts small, but escalates quickly until it’s impossible to ignore. As the abuse worsens, Moss finds herself increasingly sure that Adrian is behind the terror, but has no way to prove it.

The genius of Wannell’s adaptation comes from this inverse design: the titular character is no longer the film’s protagonist. Instead, Wannell focuses on the visceral horror of being stalked by an invisible presence, using mise en scène to keep audiences off-balance. 

Mundane conversations are filmed from the corner of deserted hallways, shadows bounce off the walls and nearly every frame leaves gaps big enough to allow the possibility of an invisible person to lurk unseen.

As Cecilia’s efforts to find who’s doing this continue, her tormentor sabotages her personal life, looting her bag before a job interview, hacking her emails and trying to cut ties with those around her. Step by step, Cecilia is forced away from her support network, leaving her even more vulnerable to her stalker’s will.

There’s a clear corollary to the #MeToo movement here, and Wannell doesn’t shy away. The film is scary, endlessly entertaining and multi-faceted thematically, but if there’s one main takeaway here, it’s pretty simply put: when women tell you they’re being abused, listen to them.

Continuing the melding of science fiction and horror Wannell began in “Upgrade,” the film takes on a technological aesthetic, ramping up the science fiction as Cecilia’s life becomes more and more horrifying. 

Adrian’s house is a lakeside monolith, made of thick stone and outfitted with outlandish gadgets. The film’s visuals are cemented in the plate glass, touchscreen displays and mysterious basement laboratory of Adrian’s house, one of the more haunting sets in recent horror. By diving deep on this modern aesthetic, Wannell has retained the Victorian horror, even in this decidedly modern adaptation.

Combining these aesthetic sensibilities with the film’s exploration of abuse culture sounds like a wonky fit, but Wannell frames them perfectly. As Cecilia’s search for answers deepens, Adrian’s house looms, a symbol of the oppression and power technology gives people access to. 

When Cecilia lived there, she was monitored constantly by security cameras — an extension of Adrian’s watchful gaze. The same is true of the computer-operated locks and security gates Adrian treats like extra pairs of grabbing arms and clenching hands. 

It’s no coincidence Adrian’s company specializes in optics — it’s a calculated way to kill two birds with one stone.

The remaining 124 minutes are precisely crafted, adrenaline-filled horror, but one of the best decisions Wannell makes in “The Invisible Man” happens the minute the film begins: audiences are never told specifically how Adrian abused Cecilia. The pair is never on screen as a couple, and Adrian’s behavior in their relationship is neither questioned nor excused. 

From the first frame of the film, Wannell makes it clear: your inability to see something doesn’t mean it’s not real.

“The Invisible Man,” rated R, is in theaters nationwide.

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