‘He is not the victim here!” screams Elisabeth Moss, heroine of The Invisible Man, the latest in the series that reboots Universal Studios’ classic 1930s scary movies for the gullible Millennial market. The film’s title now refers to the hidden threat of an unseen, yet lethal, patriarchy. But this movie doesn’t fight against under-recognized male hegemony; it is very much part of contemporary Hollywood hegemony, imposing social-justice trends on our culture.
Moss plays Cecilia Kass, the frantic girlfriend of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an “optics engineer” who dominates and abuses her physically and psychologically. She’s imprisoned in his high-tech Bay Area cliffside mansion — a sort of #MeToo Rapunzel, unfurling a long list of grievances. In short, this new The Invisible Man is no fun.
How could it be when we’re subjected to more whining and whimpering from Moss? First seen making her preplanned escape (borrowed from Julia Roberts’s Sleeping with the Enemy), Moss negates the film’s fairy-tale, bad-romance aspects through her usual impertinence. She has made a career out of seeming to have never had a happy day in her life. This miserable outlook defines every Moss role from TV’s Mad Men to The Handmaid’s Tale. As the standard-bearers for anti-entertainment, Moss and director Leigh Whannell promote the perverse trend in which silly actresses think that “empowerment” justifies everything. They corrupt what was originally H. G. Wells’s study of egotism-turned-to-madness. It’s now a lesson in misandry, a women’s-justice broadside (with a particular topical target to be named later).
Insipid agitprop is also the hallmark of Blumhouse, the horror film-production company behind The Invisible Man and best known for Get Out. Blumhouse is unashamed about exploiting political fears in trashy genre vehicles. Instead of probing social anxieties as major horror filmmakers from George Romero to Larry Cohen have done, Blumhouse aims its message at fellow travelers. The Invisible Man seeks the most superficial audience identification, based in identity politics, even when those social groups are not well served — whether stereotypically spooked blacks in Get Out and Ma or women like Moss’s hounded and bedraggled victim.
In classic Hollywood thrillers, female victims were idealized for their purity, intelligence, or sensuality. This allowed actresses — from Hitchcock’s Joan Fontaine and Tippi Hedren to De Palma’s Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, and Rebecca Romijn — to reach deeper into our compassion, rather than merely touching on topical attitudes. Profound humanism is lost when actresses are used polemically, making themselves over as token figures. (In the upcoming The Truth, Catherine Deneuve plays an aging screen icon who warns, “Actresses give up on themselves and their talent when they turn to politics.”)
Unfortunately, one must report that The Invisible Man gives Moss the no-makeup look. Throughout the film, she appears with blotchy, pale skin and pimples, her hair sweaty and matted — as if to confirm last year’s flop Her Smell. (Whannell’s sickest joke occurs when Cecilia goes on a job interview and a flirtatious male calls her “beautiful.”)
Is there an undercurrent of hostility in Moss’s co-sponsored degradation? Scenes where she is stalked by mad-genius Adrian require her to pantomime hands-free brutalization, even being lifted into the air while she’s invisibly strangled. Sympathy turns to disgust.
That disgust continues in the formulaic scenes of Cecilia’s protectors — a useless black police detective (statuesque Aldis Hodge) and his college-bound daughter (Storm Reid) who are also, inevitably, brutalized. That these stereotypes of Blumhouse pity become punching bags also suggests some secret antipathy. In this politicized version of The Invisible Man, the revenge motive respects no bounds. (One is grateful that Cecilia’s unwanted pregnancy is not carried to the obvious conclusion.) By the end, Cecilia/Moss’s distrust and ferocity support total condemnation: The invisible male is the phantom male is every male.
If Blumhouse had integrity, it would have honored H. G. Wells’s thesis that mankind’s inherent narcissism implicates us all. Paul Verhoeven realized this in Hollow Man, his 2000 version of Wells’s sci-fi cautionary tale, and perhaps only an artist of Verhoeven’s puckish daring could successfully expand Blumhouse’s sensationalism into an exposé of Hollywood collusion — male power and female complicity, e.g., the Harvey Weinstein story. (Verhoeven’s satirical fiery climax — “You think you’re God? I’ll show you God!” — reproves Meryl Streep’s giving the appellation “God” to Weinstein.”)
The insidious idea of extrapolating white male dominance through a carnival of trompe-l’oeil brutality and bloodshed — all perpetrated by Adrian, “a world leader in the field of optics” — reflects back on the film itself. This Invisible Man is not entertainment; it’s merely a domestic-violence showcase for masochists.