Five Takeaways: ‘The Invisible Man’
March 10, 2020
Your weekly break-down of a popular movie or television episode to see what a screenwriter—or any writer, for that matter—can take away from what’s on screen: what worked, what didn’t, and how you can use what’s popular to craft better stories.
The Invisible Man starring Elisabeth Moss is a new take on a classic, delivering high-stakes tension and bubbling dread punctuated by killer performances. An update on the “girlfriend stalked by her psychotic ex-boyfriend” trope, this film still feels fresh even though the source material is well worn.
You may not see the title character coming, but the screenwriter takeaways are easy to spot.
*WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!*
The Invisible Man is intellectual property, or IP. Intellectual property means that something exists before the script is written pertaining to copyrighted material or public domain books, mythological creatures, or even historical events. The Invisible Man was originally a science fiction novel by H. G. Wells in 1897. Then came the classic 1933 film starring Claude Rains (which brought us the bandage-wrapped Invisible Man that has become the de facto look of the character). Next, there was Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 trashy horror Hollow Man. The list goes on and on. The Invisible Man (2020) is an old idea made better. It abandons all the original characters and plot to tell a story of the terror an ex-lover can level against an innocent person. In a broader sense, this film is actually a metaphor for the abuse, gaslighting and stigma domestic violence victims face. In fact, the only thing writer-director Leigh Whannell keeps from the source material is the fact that there is an Invisible Man (though, he also does give nod to the fact that dogs can still “see” invisible men—a plot point in Wells’ original). When tackling IP, this reinvention is the key. Don’t simply tell the story again. Tell a new story, with the added benefit of using IP. You can piggyback on a title and characters that everyone already knows, examining them through our modern lens.
Two endings? Too long.
The Invisible Man pulls off what is called a false ending; when the plot is heading towards its big finale, but there is still story left to resolve—more work to be done to satisfy both character and audience. In The Invisible Man, our two endings couldn’t be more different. The first (and much larger, traditional ending) sees an epic and violent escape from a mental health facility and a showdown with guns, fistfights and pepper spray. It’s big and bloody - and reveals that the Invisible Man has been the conniving younger brother. It’s a Scooby Doo ending, with a literal “mask yanking” and a gasp from the audience. It’s also emotionally draining and caps off a thirty-minute escape sequence.
Then, we have our second ending, where Cecilia alone still believes her ex, Adrian, has planned and concocted this whole scheme and she and her police detective friend will take the fight to him. Stylistically, this second ending has a “revenge fantasy” tone to it, plodding towards its inevitable, bloody finale where Cecilia faces her fears and tricks the trickster. It’s satisfying, but on a thematic and narrative level, it is “tacked on”. False endings are tricky (which is probably why you see so few of them in movies). If you tell your story well, the audience is emotionally wiped after your finale showdown—and The Invisible Man is a masterclass in the escalating final fight (it’s brutal). But, when the smoke clears and the bleeding stops, we as the audience are drained. The storyteller has done her job, and we are relieved. We’re ready for the story to be over. So, second endings often have this plodding, inevitable quality to them where you’re simply running out the clock. The use of the false ending is an artistic choice, and one that a writer should make carefully.
Keep it simple. Keep it scary.
When The Invisible Man works best, it forgoes the huge action pieces or even the appearance of its title character. Where this movie really shines—or I should say scares—is when poor Cecilia is alone, knowing someone is out there, but she just can’t find him. We don’t see the Invisible Man, and this tale is all the better for it. Our mind plays tricks on us, our imagination fills in the blanks with what lurks in the shadows. Once Adrian/the Invisible Man reveals himself and we begin to really see the suit, he loses a bit of his fearfulness (after all, the suit clacks and whirs a lot like the alien from the Predator movies, which is a nod and a wink to another invisible villain). When this story simply focuses on a woman in a house, tormented by an unseen figure who is intent on ruining her life, The Invisible Man transcends and goes from good thriller to Hitchcock-level paranoia and anxiety. After all, that basic situation is something we all can relate to. Simple, primal fears always work the best. They transcend race, income, language and even logic. What if someone you couldn’t see was watching you? What if you knew they were watching you, but you couldn’t prove it? There’s universality there. That fundamental idea is why The Invisible Man still works over a hundred years after its publication. Fundamental fears allow movies and stories to outlast their shelf life. Think about classic thrillers and horrors—all the successful ones have a primal, simple fear at their core.
Details Don’t Always Matter.
The Invisible Man doesn’t let the small stuff get in the way of its narrative. It’s a smart choice. We never really learn how invisibility works in this movie…something about cameras built into the fabric of the suit, maybe it’s light reflection. Who knows? Even better, who cares? This isn’t a movie about how someone could build an invisibility suit, it’s about how someone could use invisibility to abuse and torment—and get away with it. Does it really matter how the invisibility suit works? Would the science of it help with the terror? Would getting to know Adrian help the film? No. No. And, no. Don’t get bogged down with details. Only explain what facts you need, what science you need, and what backstory you need.
However, you (as the writer) should know this information through research and character development. Most of that kind of detail doesn’t need to make it into the script—what needs to make it through, will shine through. I know, it’s hard. You’ve done your research and you want to show it off. But resist the urge and focus on the story. You’ll always be better for it. The Invisible Man takes this concept of leaving out the details a step further— right down to how it introduces our main characters. With no dialogue to guide us, we being the movie the night Cecilia pulls off her daring escape. We don’t get a good look at Adrian, we don’t know what he’s done to Cecilia, and we simply follow her through the house, glimpsing the invisibility suit and Adrian’s immense wealth. It’s such a great choice because we not only get dropped right in on the tension and the fear, but we don’t slowly build towards Cecilia’s escape. A lesser writer would have set up their relationship, shown us his abuse and then—probably around the act two break—had Cecilia escape. Instead, Whannel jumps in late and the movie is so much better for it. Still, even though details may not matter, there is one part of a story that always matters and that should never be skimmed over. Which leads us to the next takeaway...
Know the why, and let us know it, too.
One area where The Invisible Man struggled was with the “why.” In essence, the whole story hinges on the fundamental question, “Why did Adrian pick Cecilia Cass to be the object of his torment and obsession?” See, Adrian is incredibly wealthy, incredibly powerful, and classically handsome. It’s never fully explained why he picks Cecilia. She doesn’t work in his career path. She isn’t born wealthy or powerful. She clearly has tried to escape before. Yet, Adrian spends millions of dollars and concocts elaborate schemes to torment her when it’s clear he could have any woman he wants (the movie comes out and says this, by the way). Later, we find out Cecilia is pregnant and that may explain the Invisible Man’s behavior in the second half of the film, but it doesn’t explain the years of abuse leading up to that. It’s important to know your villain’s “why” and let us know. Otherwise, we get distracted and we can lose the thrill of the story trying to deduce motivations. Though, to be fair, perhaps Adrian’s lack of “why” for going after Cecilia is an answer in its own way. After all, why do abusive men torment any woman? Why do ex-husbands kill their wives when they could easily remarry? Why does any stalker choose to obsess when there are so many more “fish in the sea”? It could be argued that the lack of Adrian’s “why” for Cecilia makes the whole situation even more chilling— you can’t reason with a sociopath who is hellbent on making someone’s life miserable. And that may be the most terrifying part of all.
Final Takeaway: A classic reimagined. Tying together themes of abusive relationships and science as a tool for terror, this thriller knows what buttons to push. It’s a film that takes its time, but the long breathing moments are where it actually works best.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.