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Memoirs Of An Invisible Man – film review

December 26, 2012

MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN

Perhaps Carpenter’s most underappreciated film.

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Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Robert Collector & Dana Olsen and William Goldman, based on the book Memoirs Of An Invisible Man by H.F. Saint. Starring: Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Michael McKean and Stephen Tobolowsky. Running time: 95 mins.

Many of us have pondered what it might be like to be invisible. Immediately we think of the advantages – sneaking into places we shouldn’t be, eavesdropping on private conversations, stealing stuff and getting away with it. Very rarely do we imagine the downside of being unseen – crossing the street safely, walking anywhere without having people bump into us, trying to sleep with transparent eyelids, waiting for food to digest before going out in public, the loneliness of never having people make eye contact. These are the things which H.F. Saint explored in his one and only novel and the things which make his take on being invisible so original and unique.

And it was these very concepts which drew comedic actor Chevy Chase to pursue the rights to the novel in order to develop it as a dramatic acting vehicle for himself.

The story tells of Nick Halloway, a self-absorbed stock analyst who, through no fault of his own, becomes involved in a scientific accident which renders him invisible. Nick soon finds himself on the run from a renegade CIA operative who will stop at nothing to have him captured and is forced to seek the help of Alice, a girl he sought to romance before the accident occurred.

Released in 1992, John Carpenter’s film adaptation of Memoirs Of An Invisible Man was the director’s first major studio picture since Big Trouble In Little China in 1986, following his two self-generated independent films Prince Of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988). It is unclear what prompted Carpenter to return to the studio system after the interference he experienced on Big Trouble – but he signed onto Memoirs purely in the capacity of hired gun, with very little affinity for the material.

The film’s commercial failure was more an issue of marketing than any perceived shortcomings of the actual film itself. Critics found it difficult to reconcile the fact that a comedic actor at the top of his game would star in a film helmed by a director better known for his horror output. If this was a comedy, they reasoned, then why have horror-meister John Carpenter at the helm? On the other hand, if it was indeed a straight dramatic piece, then why cast funny-man Chevy Chase in the titular role?

Perhaps now with the passage of time, after these irrelevent concerns have long been forgotten, the movie can be truly appreciated for what it is – a light-hearted blending of romance, sci-fi and Hitchcockian pursuit thriller.

Chase does well in the role of Nick Halloway, playing him with just the right blend of narcissism and humour – perfectly capturing the tone of the novel’s first-person narrative.

Having been familiar with H.F. Saint’s novel prior to seeing the film, I wondered just how it would be possible translate this particular story to the screen – as the Halloway character is invisible for most of the time. The way Carpenter deals with this is quite ingenious – he simply shows Chase onscreen – intercut with other character’s POV’s of moving objects etc. Sam Neill provides much of the humour with his physical reactions and interactions with the invisble Halloway, clearly relishing his role as rogue CIA operative Jenkins. It’s quite refreshing to see Neill explore his comedic side in this movie and he virtually steals the show with his perfectly-timed comic performance.

memoirs of an invisible man - sam neill

The chemistry between Chase and Hannah also works well. Hannah has never been more lovely.

memoirs of an invisible man - hannah and chase

The photography by William A. Fraker (Bullitt, Rosemary’s Baby) lends the San Francisco locales a classy sheen. And first-time film composer Shirley Walker’s lush orchestral score does much to evoke the sensibility of Hitchcock’s thrillers – North By Northwest in particular.

Some have questioned whether Memoirs is indicative of Carpenter’s oeuvre, to which I respond – absolutely. The tone of this film is very similar to Starman in many respects. The anti-establishment aspect which is prevalent in many of Carpenter’s films is also very much in evidence here.

The visual effects by ILM, considered revolutionary at the time, hold up remarkably well. The scene with Chase jogging along the beach is particularly impressive.

memoirs of an invisible man beach

Memoirs is filled with ingenious ideas. Halloway’s puppeteering of a drunk to flag down a cab is straight from the novel and is well staged by Carpenter for the screen. Some additional ideas were later utilized in Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man in 2000 – the most obvious of these being the authorities’ use of infra-red goggles to locate a person who is invisible.

If I were to have a criticism of the film, it would be the uneccessary denoument over the end credits. It appears to be have been added to provide closure, whereas the novel ended on a more sombre, open-ended note. This tacked-on extra scene is a little too cheesy and glib, which is at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.

Despite this minor misstep, Memoirs is a bright and breezy romantic thriller with a fascinating premise, appealing characters and clever visual effects – well worth a look.

3 stars out of 5

Star Ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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2 Comments
  1. Fine review for an under appreciated John Carpenter film. Good to find someone who doesn’t hate this (as so many do).

    • gregory moss permalink

      I don’t understand why some people are so down on Memoirs either. Surely there are worse Carpenter films out there – Escape From LA for example.

      🙂

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