Monday, May 27, 2013

John Carpenter: Memoirs of an Invisible Man

After the back-to-back success of his smaller projects, Prince of Darkness and They Live, Carpenter found himself — like he was post-Halloween and The Fog — once again intrigued by the prospect of working within the studio system. With a better, less naïve, understanding of how making a movie for a big studio works, perhaps Carpenter felt that he could try his hand at it again albeit with a more carefree, detached approach that wouldn’t leave his confidence in shambles this time around. Unfortunately, Carpenter was assigned a film that was losing proposition from the onset. Like Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man shows Carpenter at the helm of another studio film with an interesting premise that begins promisingly enough but ultimately tapers off, becoming something uninteresting and tiresome.

The film follows Nick Halloway (Chase), who is introduced in an interestingly enough way where he is relaying his memoris into a video camera. Right away the film shows off its invisible man special effects (which are actually not bad, and pre-date something like Hallow Man by eight years) by having Nick prove that he’s invisible (he blows a bubble with some gum) and that this isn't just some ruse. Nick tells the story (via noir-style narration) of how he became invisible, and we flash back a few days earlier where we see Nick in his job as a stock analyst, his initial meeting with love interest Alice (Daryl Hannah), and a general overall idea of how Nick doesn’t take things very seriously and blows off meetings and the like.

While slipping out of an important investor’s meeting at a research lab , Nick goes to the restroom where he bumps into a lab technician who spills his coffee over some important equipment, thus setting off the chain of events that ultimately leads to Nick becoming invisible. David Jenkins (Sam Neill), a CIA operative, is assigned Nick’s case, but before he can study him and ask him questions, Nick flees after hearing that he’s essentially going to be a government lab rat the rest of his life. From this point on the film becomes your typical chase film where the evil government, fearful of what it doesn’t understand or can’t contain, desperately tries to capture and confine Nick. Meanwhile, Nick confides in Alice — explaining his condition and who is after him — and she decides to help him in his quest.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man wants to be a neo-noir on top of also being a comedy, romance, and action film. It’s just trying to do too much. And a lot of what it’s trying to do just isn’t that interesting. The film, based on the novel by H.F. Saint, was to be directed by Ivan Reitman, but Chase was adamant about not wanting to do a broad comedy. Reitman was baffled by this and backed out of the project as did screenwriter William Goldman who was hired to write the script that Warner Bros. had paid a little over 1 million dollars for the rights of. With no director and a star/producer hell-bent on making a more serious movie, the studio pegged Carpenter who surely must have seen this as nothing more than a “Chevy Chase project” since he didn’t put his name above the film’s title (only the second time he would do this). Carpenter has stated in interviews that the big studios weren’t interested in making challenging films, and he knew that he wouldn’t have any sway as director in the ultimate vision of the film, so why put his name over the title when it’s the studios film and not his.

One then wonders what exactly attracted Carpenter to this project. Perhaps hopes were high at the time of production that this 40 million dollar film would be a big hit, but unlike Starman (Carpenter’s only financially successful foray into Hollywood filmmaking), Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a disaster at the box office, and Carpenter once again failed to find success with a studio picture. But it has less to do with Carpenter as a director (there’s really nothing at all that one can point to in the film that is quintessential Carpenter; he doesn’t even compose the music for this one) and more to do with the film’s star and uneven tone of the film.

The acting is serviceable — it’s always great to see actors like Michael McKean and Stephen Tobolowsky, but they’re scenes are few and far between, and the CGI is pretty impressive for 1992 (especially the chase through the park where Nick sheds one piece of clothing at a time while on the run). Mostly, though, it’s Chase — who even though he’s invisible is still seen throughout the entire film — inserting himself into a ridiculously unbelievable romance with Daryl Hannah and running away from CIA operative Neill. It’s incredibly banal for a movie about an invisible man. Chase wanted the film to be about the loneliness of being an invisible man, but the film isn’t interested in going there; no, it’s more interested in silly invisible man gags that are funny at first but quickly devolve into tedium.

There’s one moment in particular that perfectly sums up the film: early in the film, Nick is trying to deal with being invisible. He stumbles upon a sot on a street corner and uses his body to hail a cab. The bit is promising and the sight gag is really amusing…at first. The problem with the scene is that is starts off promisingly enough and then quickly loses steam as it just continues to go on and on and on until it becomes flat out annoying. The entire film could have used some tightening up, and the scene in the cab is the perfect metaphor for how the film has so many promising ideas and starts, but it just fizzles out as the camera never cuts away from Chevy because Chevy probably thought the audience wanted more Chevy. So we get a lot of scenes that just die right before our eyes.

Chase claims that he wanted the film to be about how hard and lonely a life of invisibility must be, and there are moments that hint that’s where the film is going (there’s a great scene where Nick is walking down the street and reclaims a stolen purse, and the robber looks on horrified and just runs off screen), but it gets too distracted along the way and doesn’t explore some of the obvious and interesting dilemmas that the film could have covered.  Ultimately it’s a chase film in the same way Starman — another film with an interesting premise bogged down by a chase-laden plot — with its human/alien love story (which is essentially what we have here with Nick/Alice) but wasn’t interested in exploring the implications of a human woman falling in love with an alien male-looking being (and having sex with it, to boot).

Memoirs doesn’t seem interested in exploring not just what it’s like to be invisible, but what it must be like for the non-invisible Alice to be in love with the invisible Nick (and what happens if they have children?). Whether it’s humans and aliens or non-invisible and invisible people falling in love, those are things that interested me and were at the forefront of my mind while watching these very banal films. As I watched these potentially interesting premises in both Starman and Memoirs get derailed by ordinary "evil government out to destroy what’s different than them,” I kept wondering: why aren’t these government agencies ever curious about such things? In all of these types of movies, they’re all paranoid wackos that simply want to destroy. It’s too ordinary and easy of a character trait for a filmmaker to fall back on, and I realize that Carpenter on Starman was just there to make Columbia Pictures’ version of E.T. and here was just around to let Chase do his thing and then get off the set, but it bums me out that he didn’t push a little more for these more interesting ideas.

Again, maybe Carpenter just wanted the paycheck (wouldn’t be the first, remember Christine?) and didn’t want to get too invested in a studio picture this time around for fear that it might break him altogether. Whatever the reason for Carpenter going back, it didn’t last long as Memoirs bombed and Carpenter returned to television, a medium he hadn’t work with since 1979’s Elvis, with the “Tales from the Crypt” inspired anthology horror film Body Bags.


  1. I haven't seen this movie for a long time but I remember Chevy Chase appearing on the BBC's Wogan show to promote it. It's a frustrating watch because in places there are some brilliantly freaky scenes (I particularly remember the scene where he undresses to make love to Daryll Hannah, only to find his genitals are missing and that Sam Neill is in the room with them. Followed by him waking up from his nightmare to the sound of a maid hoovering around him). As you say though, there really should have been so much more to it.

    It's little more than a curio now though - the last time Chase starred in a "big" movie.