Here is one of the few films from director John Carpenter where his name isn’t above the title. It’s also an unusual, big budget, mainstream studio assignment for Carpenter, whose prior films had been mostly (with a few exceptions) low budget, vision controlled indies. Since this isn’t “John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man” and is a seemingly out-of-place Chevy Chase vehicle in his otherwise fairly gritty filmography, does it mean the film doesn’t deserve acknowledgement as a significant work? Actually, Carpenter’s recognizable visuals and themes are on display in the opening moments.
As the title splashes across the screen, accompanied by Shirley Walker’s exciting score, we see a manhunt taking place across New York. Men in three piece suits are in view, standing still and looking at the world through night vision glasses. Their eerie stillness and bureaucratic, humanity-free appearance bring back memories of the villains of the Carpenter-scripted “Halloween III” or even the yuppie aliens of “They Live.”
After the director’s name appears, we push in on an empty chair, which is embodied by an invisible Chase, playing Nick Halloway. The opening lines are familiar, as we’re about to move backward in time and witness the events that made Halloway a literally transparent fugitive, hunted by top government officials. Yet, two things immediately stand out: although released in 1992, the visual effects are still sensational. From the very beginning of “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” the CGI and Industrial Light and Magic wizardry is so good, it holds up with other early-90’s f/x extravaganzas like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Jurassic Park.” Also, while not a dramatic breakthrough, Chase’s hard boiled narration is as effective as his most straight faced, committed performance.
Halloway is a stock analyst who, for pretty contrived reasons, accidentally becomes invisible by a massive mistake taking place in a science building. When the visibility of the entire building goes into flux, a questionable government agent (played with relish by Sam Neill) arrives to contain the situation and sedate Halloway. Smelling a rat and terrified by his unwanted state of invisibility, Halloway flees and seeks a way to become visible once again.
This is based on H.F. Saint’s great, saucy novel of the same name and the film adaptation stops short of exploring Saint’s more intimate details about the power to be present but not seen. Carpenter’s entertaining but clumsy comic thriller isn’t as funny or satirical as the source material. Nothing here is as thrilling or sophisticated as it needs to be, but Carpenter’s film often comes close. There are wonderful moments, particularly when a tribute is made to Claude Rains’ Invisible Man.
The set up is great, as Chase is shown sitting alone at a bar and never filmed against a relfective surface. Neill eventually utters that Halloway “was invisible before he was invisible” and the line resonates. Halloway is a shallow, non-existent 1%’er who learns the value of being present in his daily life. If only the anticlimactic final confrontation and cutesy epilogue didn’t soften the more existential qualities of the screenplay.
Chase’s performance suffers when he leans toward lazy farce, as does William Goldman’s screenplay (the sex jokes, particularly in a dream sequence, are lame). As solid as he is here, the special effects are so strong, they drive the film forward more so than Chase. Playing Chase’s love interest, Daryl Hannah is as lovely as ever but her character is slight and doesn’t give her enough to do. Neill invests in the recklessness of his role but the screenplay keeps him at one note. Neill has what it takes but the movie holds him back from emerging as a truly great villain.
Although the film doesn’t entirely connect, there are moments that induce wonder and awe. Carpenter’s film is preferable to Paul Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man,” though Verhoeven isn’t afraid to probe the dark heart of its antagonist. Carpenter’s film asks some intriguing questions (particularly as Hannah’s character falls in love with a man she cannot see) but stays soft.
Yet, while not up to Carpenter’s far more respectable “Starman,” this is still a good change of pace for one of the Masters of Terror. It feels compromised by studio-imposed changes and fumbles the love story and a pointless sequence set at Michael McKean’s beach getaway. Yet, Carpenter’s film is still frequently dazzling, especially when it focuses on the Chase (both the foot pursuit and yes, Chevy). At the very least, it lives up to its status as a curiosity item. As an out-of-character, horror movie legend/comic actor movie star team-ups go, it’s far better than the Eddie Murphy/Wes Craven “Vampire in Brooklyn.”