Universal’s attempt at creating a cinematic universe around its roster of classic monsters has been a mess.
At the time of 2014’s Dracula Untold, there was talk that it would be the inaugural entry in Universal’s so-called Dark Universe. While technically profitable—grossing $217 million against a $70 million budget—the film was ultimately forgettable, with paltry reviews. Not quite the resounding box office hit the studio was banking on. So in 2017, Universal unveiled its “official” slate of Dark Universe films, with Tom Cruise in The Mummy leading the pack. But it was dead on arrival, both at the box office and with critics.
And with that, it seemed that Universal’s famous monsters would forever be relegated to their crypt.
But with director Leigh Whannell’s interpretation of The Invisible Man, which opens in theaters today, Universal may have found what it has been looking for all along: a reboot that reframes a classic villain in a modern context that feels not only culturally relevant but important.
The Invisible Man stars Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia, a woman who escapes an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). While in hiding with family and friends, she gets word that Adrian killed himself in distress of her leaving him. Her feeling of finally being safe quickly dissipates when supernatural events that she can’t explain to herself, least of all to those closest to her, start happening. Everyone tells her that she’s just been traumatized by her toxic relationship, but Cecilia is convinced that Adrian isn’t really dead and is on a mission to prove it and reclaim her life.
The Invisible Man is an urgent meditation on the toxic relationships that women in particular are so often subjected to. It’s also, surprisingly enough, a damn cool near-tech film.
“The first thing I wanted to do was to set it in our world. I didn’t want to do anything that was outlandish, anything that could be slotted into a fantasy category,” Whannell says. “I didn’t want to set it in 1800s London—there’s a version of this movie that could have taken place back then that would’ve been devoted to [H.G. Wells’s original novel]. But I didn’t want to do that.”
What Whannell wanted to make was what he calls the “Gone Girl version” of The Invisible Man.
“During that process of figuring out how to make it feel very modern and very grounded and real,” he says, “I realized that tech was my best friend.”
Whannell is no stranger to tech-based narratives. His 2018 film Upgrade told the story of a man who goes on a revenge spree after a mugging incident left him paralyzed and his wife dead. Aided by a chip implanted in his spinal cord, he tears his way through his assailants, uncovering a greater conspiracy afoot—and the fact that the chip is taking over his mind.
“I do have this suspicion and anxiety of tech,” Whannell says. “A lot of the themes in Upgrade and in Invisible Man, I didn’t originally think of them as companion films. But now with a little bit of hindsight, there are so many similarities between the two of them.”
To dig into exactly what makes The Invisible Man a fascinating take on tech, a key plot point will be discussed. So, SPOILERS AHEAD!
A high-tech disappearing act
In Wells’s original novel, a scientist discovers a pharmaceutical cocktail that successfully (and irreversibly) turns him invisible. In Whannell’s version, Adrian is a tech whizkid who made his fortune in optics and has constructed an invisibility suit made of a hexagonal constellation of tiny cameras that could, theoretically, exist.
“The idea was a suit made of hundreds of small cameras, all filming what’s around them whilst also producing a hologram of what’s behind the suit wearer,” says Alex Holmes, The Invisible Man‘s production designer. “So a camera on the suit’s back is filming backwards, but the image it is filming is appearing on the front of the suit as a hologram, as a layer over the iris of each camera. All cameras and holograms combined, the theory went, would then produce the effect of invisibility because an image of whatever is behind the suit wearer at any one time was being projected on the front of the suit.”
Initially, Holmes was toying with the concept of a suit that could bend light—i.e., making an object appear invisible because there’s no light reflecting back at the observer. Although this approach is more in line with where current “invisibility” technology is, it wasn’t filmic.
“There was no neat way to ‘show’ this visually,” Holmes says. “It wasn’t going to be comprehensible enough for an audience. Instead, we came up with the idea of using an optics philosophy and methodology.”
Holmes and his team consulted with professors and leaders in the space at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science research agency, to ensure that they were in step with Whannell’s vision of keeping the tech as close to feasible as possible.
“They told us that in theory what we were proposing could be done,” Holmes says. “But there were some extremely complicated challenges to solve from an optics point of view. And it wasn’t achievable without years and years of costly development. That, for us, was perfect. We needed this to feel like tech that was just out of reach of today, but still believable.”
A cinematic suit—hold the Marvel
Having a suit made of cameras proved to be a wellspring of inspiration for larger themes Whannell wanted to explore.
“It’s about surveillance. The method of invisibility is all about cameras—you’re being watched and recorded at all times,” Whannell says. “And for me that was a really conscious thing about how surveilled we are now and how trackable we are. You can’t disappear anymore. So I felt like that would be a good, literal way to represent this hardcore surveillance of every single thing you do.”
But the question became what does a suit of cameras look like?
Holmes says Whannell was open to ideas with one clear mandate: that nothing would look like it could live in the Marvel Universe.
“He wanted something slick [and] minimalistic, without lots of pointless techy design elements—cutting edge, but real and functional. Not sci-fi,” Holmes says. “We both felt this film needed to be approached like drama or a thriller, not as a sci-fi film or horror. So even if the suit needed to be something that had a sinister presence, we were very conscious of not wanting to lean into the classic visual tropes [of] sci-fi or horror.”
One of the early designs of the suit featured noticeable size variations of the cameras. But, in the end, less was more.
“It was reminiscent of something you might design for Transformers. It looked cool, but very designed and very sci-fi,” Holmes says. “In the end, we decided to keep the variations very subtle so that the overall feeling of the suit was very uniform, simple, and functional. But we found that it was this simplicity and minimalism that helped it feel ominous and sinister. It made it feel disturbing somehow.”
This version of The Invisible Man works because within the framework of the original tale, Whannell has constructed a layered story that’s as much about toxic men and the women who survive them as it is about challenging the technology that is increasingly governing our existence.
“We’re living in the tech evolution where every day some new tech development lands in our lives, and very quickly we absorb it,” Whannell says. “What was science fiction when I was growing up is now just part of our daily lives. And so I realized that I could use that to the film’s advantage.”
The Invisible Man is in theaters February 28.