When The Invisible Man hit theaters two weekends ago, audiences embraced it—as they did with previous Blumhouse successes Get Out and the Purge franchise before it—to the tune of a $29 million opening-box-office cume. Beyond its commercial success as one of the year’s best thrillers, the Elisabeth Moss movie, which stayed strong into its second weekend, also serves as a welcome (and timely!) reminder of horror’s roots in social and political commentary. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, it combines the classic H. G. Wells story with the harrowing narrative of a woman trying to escape her abusive boyfriend. Coming 20 years after the last big-screen attempt to adapt the story—Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 Kevin Bacon vehicle, Hollow Man—The Invisible Man succeeds where its predecessor fails, injecting its source material with a timely critique that dismantles the myth of the “male genius.”
Moss plays our protagonist, Cecilia, a troubled woman desperate for freedom from the controlling Adrian, a chilly and enigmatic scientist she’s dating. She leaves him in the middle of the night in a tense sequence that opens the film. We watch as she quietly sneaks out of bed, disables Adrian’s security system, and runs frantically off his property toward the main road. Once Cecilia is safely away from Adrian, she’s made to believe that he’s committed suicide. But she soon realizes that he’s not really gone—he’s just found a new way to control her. As a newly (titular) invisible man, Adrian devotes all his time to abusing Cecilia—and by faking his death, he’s quickly able to both torment her while also making everyone in her life believe she is violent and unstable.
Unsurprisingly, The Invisible Man feels significantly more refreshing in its portrayal of women than the 1897 novel it’s based on, which didn’t give much thought to female characters at all. H. G. Wells’s book is about what happens when a man gains the power to act and live beyond his physical form; its protagonist, Griffin, spends most of the novel interacting with men, women existing only in the periphery. The 1933 James Whale film adaptation is savvy enough to include a prominent female character to bear witness to Griffin’s self-destructive actions: The titular invisible man quickly becomes a villain, sidelining his lover, Flora, in the process. But at the end of the film, he dies with Flora at his bedside, becoming visible again as he passes. Progress(ish)!
As science fiction began to become a pop-culture staple, a new question arose: Where do women belong in all this? What happens to the women while the men are meddling with powerful forces? With the exception of women like Mary Shelley, C. L. Moore, and Alice Bradley Sheldon, the majority of science fiction’s most popular stories were written by men. Their stories were then largely adapted for the screen by male filmmakers and screenwriters who often treated their female characters as afterthoughts. They were the love interests (Weena in The Time Machine), the daughters (Lota in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), or a combination of both (Altair in Forbidden Planet).
It wasn’t until the films of Ridley Scott (Alien) and James Cameron (The Terminator) that women became prominent figures in Hollywood sci-fi. Both franchises’ central characters (Ripley and Sarah Connor) are guided by the instinct to protect themselves and the people around them, rather than pursuing madcap power grabs like many of sci-fi’s male leads.
It wasn’t until 2000 that a director thought to make women prominent in an Invisible Man story. Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, though inspired by Wells’s classic, is far from a direct adaptation, with themes that explicitly address systemic male power over women. Hollow Man tells the story of a hotshot scientist named Sebastian (Kevin Bacon) who, at the beginning of the movie, has already led a team in creating an invisibility serum. In an effort to test out an antidote, he ignores the counsel of his peers and chooses to make himself the next test subject. Becoming visible again proves to be a challenge, and he quickly goes mad with rage and frustration. Predictably, most of his victims are women, as he uses his invisibility to take advantage of them. Sebastian finds pleasure in using his invisibility to remove women’s clothing and touch their bodies freely. Believe it or not, it hasn’t aged particularly well.
Sebastian’s main target is Linda (Elisabeth Shue), an ex-girlfriend who is secretly seeing their colleague Matt (Josh Brolin). His obsession with her, coupled with the anger over his invisible form and confinement to his lab, fuels Sebastian’s jealous, misogynistic, and murderous rampage. He even rapes an unnamed woman (Rhona Mitra) simply because he can. As a director, Verhoeven has always displayed a fascination with exploring the objectification and sexual exploitation of women in his films, most notably in his infamous 1995 flop Showgirls. With that history in mind, Hollow Man reads more like an indictment of men and their sadistic obsession with controlling women. The ending of the film—where Linda becomes the Final Girl, pushing Sebastian to his death—is a pretty clear indication of whose side Verhoeven has taken. Still, the majority of Hollow Man leans pretty heavily on titillation, finding an almost perverse joy in watching every woman who comes into contact with Sebastian be toyed with and brutalized.
Whannell’s 2020 adaptation smartly trades out titillation for a realistic portrait of a woman trying to process her trauma and leave her abuser behind. The film rarely focuses on who Adrian is as a person, or his wants, pushing the viewer to prioritize Cecilia’s needs and the loneliness she feels fighting this battle that no one believes is actually happening. She’s never explicit about what she went through living with Adrian, and we never see the specifics of his abuse, but we don’t need to. In real-life cases of domestic abuse, the worst of it is often hidden behind closed doors. It’s up to everyone on the outside to believe a hurt that they can’t see.
By focusing on the victim of The Invisible Man rather than reveling in her tormentor’s violent exploits, Whannell’s film serves as a much stronger critique of men who abuse their power to control women and the world at large. Including and centralizing women expands the human element of the science-fiction canon, bringing freshness to the work of H. G. Wells. And unlike Ripley and Sarah Connor, who essentially become action stars along the way, Cecilia defeats her monster by weaponizing her implied weakness. The Invisible Man is a film that gives voice to the supposedly docile women who have often been collateral damage in the male quest for scientific innovation. Cecilia’s story isn’t just about surviving a monster; it’s about liberating her personal narrative from the man who tried to erase it.
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Originally Appeared on GQ