It’s unfortunate that “The Invisible” is being marketed as a typical teen horror movie. It’s not: based on a novel titled “Den Osynlige” and a Swedish film based on it, the picture is an interesting “Twilight Zone”-ish tale with minimal violence, which also tries to make, even if a bit muddily, some deeper points about responsibility and redemption. It’s also unfortunate that the movie wasn’t pre-screened for the press, since most critics—if they weren’t annoyed about having to pay to see it on opening day—would probably have been pleased to find that this wasn’t just another blood-splattered gore-fest and told their readers or listeners so.
You might think of the film as a sort of teeny-bopper version of “Ghost,” though without that movie’s case of the cutes. Justin Chatwin (Tom Cruise’s son in “War of the Worlds”) plays Nick Powell, a high school student on the eve of graduation. He’s a bright kid—a star in his English class—but a troubled one who writes other students’ papers for cash although he’s obviously well-off. The source of his disenchantment is the fact that the father he deeply love died (how, it’s not said), and his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is a stiff and demanding woman who not only finds it hard to show affection but is resisting his plan to go off to London to study poetry.
Nick’s immediate problem begins when he falls afoul of campus bad-girl Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva) when he confronts her about harassing his nerdy friend Pete (Chris Marquette), who owes her money. She blames Nick when somebody rats on her to the cops for a robbery, and, along with her two thug enforcers, beats him up and leaves him for dead. But Nick’s not dead: he’s barely alive, and his spirit emerges to try to get his body the medical help it needs if he’s to survive. It’s a difficult thing to do, since nobody can see or hear him—except, after a while, the guilt-ridden Annie. The issue is whether he can persuade the hard-bitten girl—whose life was devastated by her mother’s death just as his was by his father’s—to admit what she’s done and lead the police to his barely-breathing physical form, though that turns out to involve further complications.
“The Invisible” sounds a bit like a well-intentioned after-school special, and at times, especially in the later stages, that’s how it definitely comes across. But overall it’s made of somewhat sterner stuff. Chatwin gives some real sinew to Nick: he plays the kid as a pouty, self-satisfied fellow initially, not afraid to make him less than completely admirable at first, and manages to build sympathy for him as he comes to realize the desperation of his situation and develop some understanding of other people’s problems. Levieva does an almost equally good job of portraying her character’s gradual transformation from hard-boiled nastiness to repentance and empathy. (She even makes her family scenes credible, even in moments with Annie’s little brother that might have become utterly mawkish.) And Harden graces the film with a high-toned, carefully calibrated turn as Nick’s self-controlled mother, bringing off a sequence in which she succumbs to pain over her son’s disappearance with consummate skill. The three lead characters emerge as more complex individuals than one expects to find in films of this sort, and that’s dramatically a very good thing.
The supporting figures are, of course, less roundly drawn, but the performances of the rest of the cast are all perfectly capable. That’s also testimony to the adeptness of director David S. Goyer, whose work here is leagues beyond his previous helming entry, “Blade: Trinity.” And cinematographer Gabriel Beristain contributes to the moody feel with sensitive cinematography that rivals what he did with “Dolores Claiborne” years ago. Even Marco Beltrami’s score is nicely supportive without becoming overly intrusive.
“The Invisible” is hardly a great film–it has too much of a teen soap-opera feel–but in a genre known for mindless mayhem, its mixture of quiet suspense and thoughtfulness is a welcome relief, even if it doesn’t entirely gel.