Friday, August 15, 2008

An Old Classic with the Expected Punch (The Invisible Man)

Director:James Whale
Viewed From: The Balcony

Part 2 of a series on old and random movies playing for 2 euros in Brussels.

-The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.-

And so begins H.G Wells's The Invisible Man, one of the man's many books that almost no one (including myself) has ever read, but that everyone has heard of. Instead we know Wells today through the movies he has inspired - The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man. The first three, all recently remade, have been of varying quality, but Wells's version of science gone awry seems to have been overtaken in Hollywood by Phillip K. Dick's more philosophical and well, fucked up, dystopian vision.

But still the adaptations seem surprisingly poor given the subject matter. Why, for instance, is the 2002 version of The Time Machine was so boring, despite some fine work by Guy Pearce? Dr. Moreau may be more understandable, with Brando out of sorts and surrounded by dreadful leads, and Ron Pearlman the only one seemingly having any fun, but why is it so bad? I missed Spielberg's War of the Worlds but even the guy's supporters seemed less than impressed. Is it possible Wells just isn't that interesting anymore? Or ever was?

Based on seeing the classic 1933 The Invisible Man last week, I'm going to say the answers are 'yes' and 'yes.' The story of the Invisible Man (played by Claude Rains in his first American feature) is one of the classic tropes of the horror genre - an idealist scientist hopes to do good, tries to buck the system, and ends up creating a monster. It is a story director Whale knew well, having made the iconic Frankenstein just two years prior. But unlike Mary Shelley, who blurred the distinction between man and monster, Wells's mad scientist is clearly the bad man, and those trying to track him down good.

Given little backstory, Jack ('the invisible one' as the credits coyly tell at the outset) simply arrives in the first scene close to mad. Twenty minutes later, he is explaining his plan 'to terrorize the world' with an 'army of invisible men.' The language and the presentation are chilling, especially given the year this was made (for non-history folks, the year Hitler became Chancellor), but there is no subtlety in the transformation. Rains does incredible work in one emotionally wrought speech after another, but he would have been helped had we seen more of the nice scientist he was before.

Some of this may be due to changes in the script, as according to the Wiki entry, Whale made Jack more crazy because "in the minds of rational people only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway," but the basic outline was there in the novel. For Wells, unlike Dick or Shelley, the moral lesson is easy: scientists are basically just good average folks who, when staying within the line of the scientific method, do good things. But add hubris to the mix, and things go crazy. But the better understanding - or at least the one that might resonates more with moviegoers today - comes from Dick, or modern writers like David Foster Wallace or Margaret Atwood, who explore just how messed up and troublesome our everyday relationship with technology and science has become. Basically, there doesn't need to be a mad scientist for science to be mad.

Despite the shortcomings of the source material, I should reaffirm what most people have said about the cinematic qualities of The Invisible Man. The special effects and the performances are excellent and not (as some would condescendingly put it) just for their time. This is, in places, a riveting and frightening movie, especially when Rains's voice reaches its most insane pitch and the bandages start to come off. I cannot foresee ever forgetting some of the images of the Invisible Man himself, and I can only imagine the reaction of people at the time - he looks unlike anything else, even Frankenstein's Monster. Whale pulls no punches, and the movie is shockingly violent in a way that only an old black and white film can be, with at least one disturbing act of real violence taking a few moments to register.

So it really is just Wells who doesn't keep up his end of the bargain, and you can thank him, rather than Spielberg or Frankenheimer, for the recent spate of middling flicks based on his novels, all vastly inferior to The Invisible Man. The idea of a pure science corrupted by the prideful may have played just fine in the early-twentieth century, but it's hard today, post-Heisenberg and post-Hiroshima, to take Wells very seriously.


Sean said...

Don't forget Food of the Gods! What a bug fuck movie that was (almost literally I don't think anyone actually gets fucked by a bug). But for a book written at the turn of the century it does have an oddly prescient take on using growth hormones in our food.

Isn't Wells supposed to be pretty bleak and dystopian? I too have not read any of his books but I always heard that he was quite political and had a very negative view in regards to humanity in general -- hence us always being the root of our own downfall.

Padraic said...

Missed Food of the Gods...sounds fun.

Wells is definitely a dystopian writer, but his seeming pessimism was based on economic and social relations - basically he just thought the rich fed on the poor and that the world was moving into almost separate species (see Time Machine).

But he viewed science and rationalism as a sort of counterbalance. Someone like Dick or your man Lovecraft I think had a deeper pessimism, and less of a manichean viewpoint. They see even the possible solutions as problems in themselves. I see Dick as closer to Swift - everybody and everything is fucked up - rather than Wells, where you can identify who it the source of the problem.

Padraic said...
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