The title character in The Invisible Man is invisible in more ways than one. True to form, he is invisible in the sense that no one can see him. (And, luckily for him, no one in the film has heard of thermal imaging equipment.) But he is also invisible in the sense that he is absent for half the running time. As written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the story focuses instead on the woman he is stalking, and so rather than being about the liberation and temptation that might come with being unseen, it is about the ways in which men bully women, and the difficulty those women have in making anyone believe them. It’s an original and timely feminist spin on HG Wells’s concept, and a welcome riposte to those thrillers that are fascinated by homicidal maniacs at the expense of their victims. If only the film itself had been clever or scary enough to do justice to its ingenious premise. 

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It begins with Elisabeth Moss’s character, Cecilia, tiptoeing around a house, holding her breath, and hoping that someone doesn’t pounce on her. And if you aren’t gripped by that opening sequence, you’re in trouble, because Moss does a lot more tiptoeing and breath-holding from then on. This first bout of tiptoeing and breath-holding takes place in the concrete-and-glass clifftop mansion she has been sharing with her abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a tech entrepreneur who is “a world leader in the field of optics”.

Having escaped his domineering clutches by sneaking out in the middle of the night, Cecilia goes to stay with her old friend James (Aldis Hodge), a single dad (and, conveniently, a policeman) with a teenage daughter (Storm Reid). Even then, Cecilia is too traumatised to set foot beyond James’s front door. But two weeks later her sister (Harriet Dyer) brings her the news that Adrian has killed himself. Cecilia is relieved – for a while. But when objects start to move around the house, seemingly of their own accord, she comes to suspect that Adrian is alive and well, even if he is a bit more transparent than he used to be. Everyone else comes to suspect that she is delusional.

At a time when small-scale horror movies can be as stunning as A Quiet Place and Get Out, a film as perfunctory as The Invisible Man feels insulting

There are a couple of moments in The Invisible Man that will jolt you out of your seat, and which will make you think twice before buying long kitchen knives. And the film is just about saved by Moss’s committed performance: she makes Cecilia such a nervous wreck – alternately furiously frantic and drained to the point of catatonia – that you can understand why the other characters assume she is paranoid. But The Invisible Man is never as effective as you wish it would be. As inspired as some of Whannell’s ideas may be, it feels as if he shot an early draft of the script, with Post-It notes on every page indicating where the details had to be fleshed out later, and where the plot holes had to be plugged.

The film is annoyingly vague on whether Adrian is a control freak, or whether he is so lackadaisical that anyone can wander into his top-secret laboratory. In fact, we learn so little about him in general that he never haunts us as he haunts Cecilia. (Even if a villain is invisible, it can help to have a mental picture of him.) Meanwhile, the dialogue doles out information in the most mechanical way, so it’s not unusual for one character to announce to another: “You have an important job interview tomorrow.” Even the clothing is drably functional. How do we know that Cecilia studied architecture at Cal Poly? Because she has ‘Cal Poly Architecture’ emblazoned on her sweatshirt. Worst of all, Whannell hasn’t conjured up any invisibility tricks that haven’t been seen in previous versions of the story. You can’t help but feel that a sadist of Adrian’s twisted genius could have thought of some more petrifying pranks than pulling Cecilia’s bedspread onto the floor. This invisible man doesn’t have much vision.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a low-budget chiller. Five years ago, Universal had planned to reboot The Invisible Man as an action-adventure blockbuster starring Johnny Depp, but when they went down that road with another of their classic monsters, they ended up with The Mummy, one of Tom Cruise’s few big-screen disasters. Sensibly, the studio’s executives opted for a cheaper take on The Invisible Man, and that’s where Whannell came in. The co-writer of the Saw and Insidious series, he specialises in cut-price ghost-train rides, and if he had got through this one in 90 minutes, it might have been just as spookily enjoyable as his others. But over the course of two hours, the flaws are all too visible. And at a time when small-scale horror movies can be as stunning as A Quiet Place and Get Out, a film as perfunctory as The Invisible Man feels insulting. Move along: there’s nothing to see here.

★★☆☆☆

The Invisible Man

Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer
Run-time: 124 min
Release date: 28 February in the US, Spain and Mexico

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