The Invisible Man is a science fiction novel from 1897, written by H. G. Wells, and since then it has turned into movies and television shows multiple times, including spin-offs and sequels. What changed between the first and the last movie? Both are tales of a mad scientist, but the same story has sparked different ideas about science and love.
The Invisible Man (1933) by James Whale
This is a fun old movie for a rainy afternoon, with great special effects. ‘He meddled in things men should leave alone!’
The protagonist is the invisible man himself. We meet him trailing in a big snowstorm with snow goggles, on his way to a tiny village where he demands a room. In the privacy of his room, we discover he is invisible and working to find its antidote.
Jack Griffin, the invisible man, is a scientist who works for Dr. Cranley’s lab. Some time after his disappearance, dr. Cranley and colleague Kemp start to search for clues about Jack’s absence. They discover a list where monocaine is mentioned. Dr. Cranley is shocked and tells Kemp that this substance leads to bleaching materials, but also to murderous insanity… Later Jack returns, threatens Kemp, and tells him about his murder spree and evil future plans.
The scientific situation is never under pressure. Jack acts as science predicted. Jack experimented with a substance science already knew was dangerous. Jack had not researched well enough before he started.
Jack Griffin started his project out of love. He is in love with Flora, the daughter of Dr. Cranley. He wants to impress her, to show her he is smart and able to provide for her, to prove himself a worthy lover. Flora loves him too. She is sure Jack is in trouble when he suddenly disappears and implores her father to look for clues. She rejects the advances of her other suitor Kemp openly.
When Jack – in his monocained evil state – sees Flora, he remembers his love for her. Dr. Cranley and Kemp are convinced that he would never be able to hurt her. Apparently, even science understands that love is stronger than any injected substance could ever be. Jack’s fate might be sealed, but his and Flora’s love can never be smudged.
In the end Jack cannot escape the laws of nature, his footsteps in the snow betray his position. He is shot. The invisibility vanishes. We can finally see his true face. The face she loved.
Love never fades.
The Invisible Man (2020) by Leigh Whannell
This version is colored stronger as a horror. (Although this might be because the special effects from 1933 seem more like ingenious fun than anything else to us, it might have been actually scary for the public then.)
The protagonist is Cecilia, the girlfriend of the possessive, rich and successful Adrian Griffin. We meet her during her nightly escape from him. She drives off with her sister to a safe place. She doesn’t feel safe there. She thinks he is there too, that he is invisible. All the other people think she must be quite traumatized or mentally ill.
The science in this movie is not about chemistry, but technology. It is not about injecting unknown substances, but about a suit with cameras.
The horror vibe comes across because at first the viewer is left in the dark about the existence of the suit. But it is not the actual suit that horrifies us, but the willingness of someone to take lives to get revenge. The possibility to have absolute power over someone and use it too. Adrian isolates Cecilia most convincingly.
The 2020 version is ambiguous about science. Cecilia cannot find safety in science. How can she prove she is not crazy, that her ex is not dead, but that he wears a suit that makes him invisible? That he is there with her in the safe house? And there with her in a crowded restaurant when her knife kills her sister. No scientist in the asylum can prove she is right. She is on her own, making her ‘look’ even more psychotic.
What if something is not caused by some chemical imbalance within, but by a real dangerous and smart person out there. What if what we see is not what is going on?
Even after the existence of the suit is discovered Cecilia is still on her own. Adrian blames his brother for wearing the suit. For Cecilia to win, to be freed of Adrian, she has to play his games. She wears the suit herself and makes a clear camera security video of Adrian ‘killing himself’, so everybody can see for themselves what happened.
Adrian Griffin already has everything Jack Griffin desires: wealth, success, and he lives with Cecilia, the woman he wants. Adrian just doesn’t want to lose her because she is the only woman who doesn’t need him and according to him that’s why he wants her. This is a different portrayal of love. Not a romantic reciprocal ideal (both partners want each other) but a lonely love. A paradoxical love: I want the one who doesn’t want me.
However, Cecilia and Adrian do know each other. They try to anticipate each other’s moves and both succeed in their efforts. To know someone is something intimate.
In 1933 love never fades. And exactly that notion is the danger in 2020.
Love is not a safe haven anymore. The desired woman is not the one whom you’ll never harm, not even when you are in a drugged state that turns you inevitably evil. Adrian hurts the woman he desires the most. One ideal has stayed the same, though. The idea that the beloved woman knows you. Flora knows who Jack really is. In that regard, Cecilia is exactly the same: she is the only one who knows who Adrian really is.
Jack’s pursuit of love kills him. Cecilia kills Adrian to survive his love. She is free to walk away. But did she change to be able to do that? Does the sense of power exhilarate her? Did she become like him? Does he continue to live inside her? What does her smile in the end really mean?