The Invisible Man (2020)
Directed and written by Leigh Whannell ◆
Produced by Blumhouse Productions and Universal
Pictures ◆ Distributed by Universal Pictures

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss (2018)
Directed by Vivieno Caldinelli ◆ Screenplay by
Christopher Hewitson, Clayton Hewitson, and
Justin Jones ◆ Produced and distributed by MarVista

Panic in the Streets (1950)
Directed by Elia Kazan ◆ Screenplay by Richard
Murphy and Daniel Fuchs ◆ Produced and distributed
by Twentieth Century Fox

The hankering for invisibility has a lengthy provenance. The desire is mentioned, for instance, in Plato’s Republic when the philosopher’s brother, Glaucon, talks of the Ring of Gyges that can bestow the power of invisibility on a man. With this power, Glaucon points out, a fellow can do whatever he wants to without worrying about damaging his reputation. Glaucon gives the example of a fellow invading boudoirs undetected to have sex with any woman he pleases. I wonder what his female acquaintances thought of this. Perhaps they just kept their eyes shut.

These reflections occurred to me while watching the new film version of H.G. Wells’ novel, The Invisible Man (1897). Although Wells had a reputation for womanizing, he didn’t invest his invisible man character, Griffin, with the same hankering. From the outset of the narrative, Griffin focuses not on stealthy access to lovelies but rather the wealth he obtains as he goes about unseen helping himself to money, jewelry, expensive clothes, and whatever other valuables he comes across.

Of course, everything’s not cakes and ale for Griffin. He cannot avoid being seen in rain or fog, and when he eats the transit of food through his alimentary canal, stomach, and intestines is fully on display. None of the many films made about invisible men and women include Wells’ realism in this matter. Perhaps they thought it too gross.

Wells seems to have written his story with the aim of illustrating the consequences of hidden criminality. Think Wall Street. Worse, the power of invisibility would inevitably lead to the exercise of wanton cruelty on others in the pursuit of power. On the loose, Griffin in his undetectable state feels perfectly free to push and buffet his fellow creatures whenever they hinder his desires.

But when Griffin finds himself cut off from the chemicals that had enabled him to disappear, he can no longer disguise his crimes. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, he finds himself trapped in his own monstrous and very visible self. From this point, the story moves swiftly to its preordained lesson: There are some matters in which humankind is not meant to meddle.

In updating this narrative, Director Leigh Whannell has made his invisible man a different kind of monster. Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a fabulously wealthy optical scientist, is a monster of control, especially of his wife, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss). She loved Adrian once, but now wishes to escape from his imperious ways. It seems she can no longer abide by St. Paul’s edict for wives to be submissive to their husbands.

This counsel, of course, has fallen into disfavor in our #MeToo age. Even unenlightened men who would continue adhering to Paul’s much longer edict instructing men to love their wives no longer honor it. In matters of gender, pusillanimity has become the order of the day for men. With toad-faced Harvey Weinstein’s noisome behavior fully on display, masculinity, even in its most honorable expression, has been driven into hiding.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wondering what Adrian’s villainy consists of. The screenplay tells us he insisted Cecilia conform to his predilections in food and clothing. But there’s little evidence that he applied force to shape her personality to satisfy his preferences.

We first meet Cecilia slipping out of bed while Adrian sleeps under the influence of the valium she’s mixed in his soup. She then meets her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), who by prearrangement is driving on the road that runs by her house. On the way out of Adrian’s coldly Bauhaus-styled residence, however, she accidentally awakens Adrian’s Doberman pinscher, which begins howling. Adrian awakens from his valium dreams, bounds out of bed and, being uncommonly fleet, catches up with Emily’s car despite it already being a quarter of a mile down the road. He then smashes his fist through the passenger window to get at his wife.

A neat trick this. I doubt even a puncher as powerful as Tyson Fury could smash the tempered glass of a car window with his fist. But we are not dealing with realism here. The smashed window is emblematic of everyday masculine rage. Men, you see, are inveterate bullies given to shattering the refinements of modern life.

I suppose the lack of realism shouldn’t be held against a science fiction story like this, but the narrative wantonly fails to convince us to suspend our disbelief in other ways also. How did Adrian, played by the exceptionally handsome Jackson-Cohen, come to marry a woman who looks like Moss? She’s not conventionally attractive, and here she has been made to look even plainer than she ordinarily does. She doesn’t wear make-up, and her blemished face is front and center in almost every scene. Perhaps this establishes her feminist bona fides. You know, a woman who doesn’t wear make-up must be taken more seriously than those who foolishly paint their faces in order to allure men.

On the other hand, Adrian’s determination to retrieve his absconding wife becomes more believable when it’s revealed Cecilia is pregnant. The domineering Adrian has been replacing her birth control pills with an innocuous medication. What a beast! He wants her back, not for herself but because she’s carrying his child. Did I mention this is a feminist film?

When Adrian can’t get Cecilia back by legal or physical means, he fakes his death and begins stalking her with the help of optical technology. He’s invented a suit that renders him invisible. What we have in this reboot of Wells’ story is a culturally up-to-the- minute narrative that dutifully puts men down, the better to exalt righteous women.

Here’s another puzzler, an indie film entitled, ominously enough, Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss. It’s framed as a step-by- step how-to guide for reaching and possessing this enviable state. The means of doing so are relatively simple. You merely have to follow the footsteps laid down by a cult leader named Storsh or, officially, the Holy Storsh, played deftly by the self-described Maori Jew, Taika Waititi, who made the superlative satire Jo Jo Rabbit last year, in which he memorably played a jolly, winsome Hitler.

The visionary Storsh came to the conclusion that earthly existence pales miserably in comparison to the glorious life to be enjoyed in the hereafter. It followed that the wisest thing one could do was to get to the next life as quickly as possible by killing oneself forthwith. And so he did—by getting into the bathtub of a slum apartment in Los Angeles and slicing his jugular. Quick and efficient, if rather messy. His followers naturally decided his method was the solution to their existential angst and soon began following his example in minute particulars, invading the same apartment’s tub equipped with a razor or knife to similarly free themselves from the mortal coils of this forsaken world.

When a naive—make that goofy— young couple rent the apartment in which Storsh previously resided, they’re ecstatic. It’s everything they want. It has ample space, and it’s conveniently located near mass transportation. What’s more, it’s preposterously inexpensive. Only after they’ve taken up residence do they ask themselves why the rent is so reasonable. They soon find out. The news is upsetting, but given the apartment’s bargain rate, the new tenants decide they can live with the minor inconvenience of cultists slitting their jugular veins in their bathtub.

Having established this amusing premise concerning cult nuttiness and the vagaries of the Los Angeles rental market, the film runs out of steam in its third act. After such a promising beginning, this is too bad. The film’s charming young actors, Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington, really know how to play deadpan ditsy for all its satiric worth. I hope to see more work from them, preferably in another wiggy satire.

For absolutely topical entertainment, you couldn’t do better than to revisit Elia Kazan’s 1950 film, Panic in the Streets. The story imagines what New Orleans would look like were it besieged by pneumonic plague, which it had been almost 30 years earlier in 1921. Richard Widmark plays Dr. Clinton Reed, who serves as a commissioned corps officer in the U.S. Public Health Service stationed in New Orleans. When a Greek illegal immigrant named Kochak dies of gunshot wounds and is sent to the city morgue, the coroner discovers the man is infected with plague and contacts Reed for confirmation. Realizing that the infection could trigger a nationwide pandemic, Reed must persuade the city’s skeptical officials of the danger so they can help him locate and inoculate all the people who had contact with Kochak since he arrived in the city.

Kazan, who preferred filming on location and employing local nonprofessionals to complement his acting cast, gave the film a thoroughly convincing look in the style of Italian neorealism, which perfectly suits its serious, no-nonsense intent.

The story is both compelling and suspenseful. Furthermore, it features an exceptionally talented cast headed by Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes, Zero Mostel, and the marvelously menacing Jack Palance in his film debut.