The Invisible Man (2020)

The last movie I saw in theaters was Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. Normally, documenting the last movie I saw in theaters wouldn’t be worthwhile, since I go so often that it would be outdated information before I could publish a review. These are not normal times. I watched The Invisible Man on the big screen a few days before all Louisiana cinemas were ordered to close indefinitely by the governor, as a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As you already know, it’s been an incredibly long & complicated couple weeks in a way that fuzzes up the memory and distorts our relationship with time. I saw The Invisible Man a relative eternity ago. Even as a traumatizing work that tackles very real, very harmful cycles of abuse, it was a welcome distraction from the hellworld outside – a mode of cinematic escape that no longer currently exists and already feels like it’s been missing in my life forever.

Whannell reinterprets The Invisible Man’s traditional lore from Universal’s Famous Monsters era the same way a lot of horror filmmakers have been revitalizing the genre in the wake of Get Out: by reassessing who we select as the genre’s villains. Most variations of Invisible Man lore—from the original 1930s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel to its slimeball offshoot Hollow Man in 2000—dwell on the implied voyeurism & lack of criminal consequences that accompany public anonymity. Rather than avoid the most sordid implications of that power, Whannell makes it an explicit part of the text. The Invisible Man is not the hero of this story. He’s a millionaire brat who uses a self-funded invisibility suit invention to invade the privacy of and further abuse his former girlfriend, who’s been traumatized by his controlling behavior to the point of seeking shelter outside his home. It’s like a reinterpretation of Batman where billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne using his extraordinarily expensive gadgetry to beat up jobless street criminals is framed as a horrifying act – which is to say it’s a realistic, politically engaged interpretation.

The only responsible way to convey The Invisible Man’s function as an abusive villain is to tell the story from his victim’s perspective. Elizabeth Moss stars as The Invisible Man’s long-abused ex-lover, a woman desperate to move on with her life after the trauma of living with the brute but continually haunted by his presence. He is reported to be dead by his own hand, but his presence still terrorizes her in both concrete & intangible ways – including literally gaslighting her by turning up the gas on the stove while she’s cooking breakfast. No one believes her that this reported-dead man is now invisible and tormenting her in anonymity, of course, at least not until his presence is unignorable because it is outright lethal. Watching this woman suffer a series of escalating, privacy-invading microaggressions that no one else takes seriously until it’s far too late has a genuine, deeply upsetting connection to how abuse manifests in real life – as does the metaphor of her post-trauma recovery being hindered by her abuser’s lingering presence. On a pure conceptual level, the movie is brilliant.

This is a much quieter film than Whannell’s previous effort, the technophobic action thriller Upgrade. He trades out that preceding film’s exciting, body-mounted camera work & pulsating synths for the cold, oscillating sweeps of security cameras and the quiet terror of an “empty” house. Casting Elizabeth Moss in the central role was a genius move, as that eerie stylistic restraint essentially makes The Invisible Man a one-woman show – something Moss is overqualified for, considering the Olympian acting feats of titles like Her Smell & Queen of Earth. Whannell’s skill for action-horror payoffs eventually comes to the forefront in the rapid escalation of the third act, once the titular villain’s cover is blown. Until then, the entire film rests in Moss’s more-than-capable hands and it’s hard to imagine an actor who could carry that responsibility as expertly as she does. If COVID-19-delayed movie releases continue to snowball in the coming months, she might even be able to turn that reduced competition pool into Awards Attention that most early-in-the-year releases couldn’t dream of. It would be deserved, no matter the context.

The Invisible Man opens with a coldly silent prison break, wherein Moss’s traumatized victim escapes her abuser’s home while he is sleeping, terrified to make even the smallest sound. I was hyper-aware of our theatrical audience’s presence during this sequence, especially the restless teens who were tittering and playing with their phones on the far end of our row. As the movie became increasingly tense, the teens quieted down and got lost in the experience of it – something I can’t imagine would have happened if they had watched it at home. Thanks to COVID-19 closures, The Invisible Man is currently available on VOD, months before it normally would have been released outside theaters. I won’t pretend that I know when cinemas will open again or what films will be available when they are, but I very much hope this disruption does not permanently upend the theatrical experience as a viable business. There’s an undeniable immersive, communal magic to the theatrical experience and—as great as it was—I very much hope that The Invisible Man is not the last time I get to experience that escapist joy.

-Brandon Ledet

Upgrade (2018)

Often, when I prattle on about my deep love of Evil Technology luddite genre films, I tend to cite recent examples like Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror as the defining works of the canon. There are plenty of pre-Internet Era luddite thrillers I love just as deeply, however; they just already have established cults that don’t need the awareness boost. Films like Hardware & Videodrome have, even if only through the passage of time, already earned passionate fanbases that haven’t caught up to more recent, less prestigious works like, say, the Snapchat filter horror film Truth or Dare. The recent Blumhouse sci-fi thriller Upgrade seems to be transcending that limitation, instantly earning a fiercely dedicated fanbase that isn’t typically afforded tech-obsessed genre films. It’s highly doubtful Upgrade will ever be as culturally iconic as a classic example like The Matrix or The Terminator, but it is bypassing the long road to genre fans’ respect suffered by just-as-deserving works like Unfriended. This might be partly due to its avoidance of exploring the evils of the Internet specifically, since that topic is often dismissed as being too frivolous or too silly to justify a feature length movie (as if a movie could ever be too silly). Instead, Upgrade largely exploits & satirizes luddite fears of self-driving, automated technology. It also, smartly, buries that satire under the surface of a comedic, hyperviolent, cheap-thrills action film that plays much dumber at face value that it actual is in its core cultural commentary. What I’m saying is that that Upgrade is the RoboCop of the 2010s (not to be confused with RoboCop [2014]), an instant genre-fan favorite because it channels the thrills & tone of an undeniable classic without directly copying it.

Paul Verhoeven’s sly satire of police privatization, Reagan Era fascism, and governmental control over personal autonomy is what makes RoboCop an enduring classic, not necessarily its over-the-top violence & (admittedly great) character design. Plot-wise, Upgrade only superficially resembles that time-tested work, touching on themes of police surveillance & the melding of the human body with creepy future-tech only in passing. Its own satirical target is the discomfort people feel with the increasing presence of self-automated technology of “smart” domestic appliances, self-driving cars, and predictive A.I. This is a violent action film about a self-driving body, where the only freedom of choice presented is how much permission is allowed a human body’s implanted operating system to act as its own discretion. And, of course, even that freedom is chipped away. It specifically focuses on the challenge automated technology presents to macho men who long for a now-extinct world that values their brute strength & ability to achieve labor-intensive tasks with their own hands. This very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can be just as easily read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes the movie so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

In a near-future dystopia, a classic macho man mechanic bristles at his wife’s love of & reliance on self-automated tech, nostalgic for a world where his hands-on skills were more useful. This anxiety is only made more extreme when his motor skills are taken away from him completely in a senseless act of violence that destroys his family & leaves him physically crippled. A fey tech-bro offers him the promise of a better future through an advanced version of the automated technology that made him so uncomfortable to begin with, affording him a new chance at “self” sufficiency by implanting a “new & better brain” (a biotech computer chip) in his body. Mimicking the humorously calm, sinister tones of HAL 9000, this new operating system, STEM, reinvigorates the fallen mechanic to enact revenge on the brutes who ruined his life. The problem is that he’s not particularly skilled at revenge. Even with his motor functions fully restored, he struggles to best the goons he hunts into physical confrontations, as they’re more skilled in brutal violence. He then must overcome his macho pride and allow STEM to take over as the driver of his own body, closing his eyes as the computer inside him enacts horrific atrocities that make him want to puke. From there, Upgrade is a race to see if the revenge mission can be completed before police-drone surveillance blows its cover completely. Honestly, the resolution of that plot is not nearly as compelling as the over-the-top violence & satirical comedy that drives it. As gore-soaked & boneheaded as the film’s action can frequently be, the overall tone is so cartoonish (especially in the internal arguments with STEM) that Upgrade effectively plays like an action comedy. It’s an indulgence in grotesque slapstick that hints that maybe its hero’s macho paranoia shouldn’t be taken as seriously as you might expect in a more standard thriller. It’s easy to imagine a straight-faced Hollywood version of Upgrade that plays this same self-automation anxiety for genuine tension (presumably starring Liam Neeson) but it’s difficult to imagine that version being half as fun or worthwhile.

A longtime collaborator with modern horror mainstay James Wan, Upgrade director Leigh Whannell impressed me once before with his willingness to go over the top in the evil doll horror Dead Silence. Just like how that bonkers horror frivolity transcended its limited means by feeling like two dozen Charles Band scripts crammed into one monstrosity, Upgrade is endearing in the way it overloads itself with ideas. Neon lights, body-mounted cameras, and intense practical gore effects complicate the humor of the film’s action sequences. Throwaway potshots at VR gaming, police drones, and erudite tech bros threaten to distract from the film’s central satirical target: macho men’s fear of approaching obsoletion through automated tech. This is the exact overstuffed, go-for-broke dual indulgence in absurdity & craft that I love to see in my genre films. Its bifurcated nature as both a gory action comedy spectacle and a subversive act of cultural commentary is indicative of the film’s “Have your cake and eat it too” attitude at large, something that was much more common in high profile genre films back when Paul Verhoeven was making mainstream hits that played a lot dumber on the surface than they truly were. Upgrade isn’t one of my precious Evil Internet horror cheapies that needs to be championed for people to see its value (I may need to conserve that energy for the upcoming Unfriended 2: Dark Web anyway). Its approach to luddite genre filmmaking is more instantly recognizable as a crowd-pleaser, with all its cultural satire buried under the surface of a hyperviolent action comedy. It’s the modern RoboCop in that way, as opposed to the more common approach of remaking & reshaping the original film’s exact plot through updated tech. This is more of a spiritual descendant than a carbon copy, something that’s much more difficult to achieve.

-Brandon Ledet