Carpenter Makes Memoirs A Winning Formula
John Carpenter is my all time favorite film director. This isn’t a renegade stance or anything. Many a film geek cut their teeth on the films of John Carpenter and I wouldn’t even say his oeuvre is particularly “deep cut”. Almost all of his films got wide theatrical distribution. Some are massive cultural touchstones and international sensations that are being revisited and remade by studios even to this very day. But for someone who made it so big and has achieved such widespread critical acclaim, Carpenter is still pretty damn punk rock. Constantly pushing the envelope and sticking it to the man in his themes and creative output, from 1976 to 1988, Carpenter created no less than 2 all-time great works of cinema, and no less than 5 of my all-time personal favorite films. There’s not a single other filmmaker on earth (nope, not even Spielberg) who has meant so much to me and informed my tastes so heavily.
His Memoirs Of An Invisible Man came along when I was actually old enough to be going to movie theaters and I’m fairly certain I caught it theatrically, or at the very least saw it soon after. It didn’t leave a big impression, and I recalled it being somewhat of a box office disappointment. But a brand new Scream Factory Blu-ray release felt like the perfect opportunity to revisit a big budget film from my favorite filmmaker to ever live. I genuinely had a blast with the movie, in spite of its glaring flaws.
One might think that the visual effects (groundbreaking at the time, and very expensive) would be the element that aged most poorly, but that is not the case. Much like other pioneering visual effects of the past, the techniques used to represent invisibility were inventive, earnest, and translate as such today just as they did in the past. Sure, there are a couple of moments achieved with a computer that might look different if done today, but that’s honestly part of the charm. As a matter of fact, I’d say the visual effects remain one of the great elements of this mixed bag of a film, allowing for moments of comedy, awe, wonder, and just plain cool.
No, the ingredient that feels most dated and most guilty of hamstringing the final product here is star Chevy Chase. I consider myself a nominal fan of Chase, having grown up loving films from the Vacation franchise, and buckling over laughing at Fletch and Caddyshack. I would later discover some of his Saturday Night Live sketches and even much later enjoyed the occasional episode of Community. Chevy Chase is a virtuoso physical comedian, and as such he absolutely shines when Robert Collector, Dana Olsen, and William Goldman’s screenplay for Memoirs calls for comedy. Here, some of the impracticalities of invisibility are explored to hilarious effect. Watching Chevy Chase try to eat Chinese food with chopsticks when he can’t see his own hands is worth the price of admission alone. This is also achieved through a decision to occasionally show us Chase’s Nick Halloway even though none of the characters can see him. Depending on the scene or perspective of the shot, we’re sometimes treated to clever visual effects to see Nick as the world would (cigarette smoke entering invisible lungs, Chinese food being vomited out of an invisible stomach, or even a beautiful outline becoming visible in the rain), and other times, we get Chase and his physical performance. If only the film didn’t call for so much more beyond that great physical performance.
Memoirs Of An Invisible Man is an aspirational film seeking to explore some of the oft-overlooked realities of what invisibility would or could really be like in the modern world. But Chevy Chase and his character Nick Halloway are extremely vapid vehicles through which to explore this interesting premise. Nick is a drunk, a womanizer, an unhappy successful businessman, and just overall someone I have virtually no sympathy for whatsoever, even though we’re asked to sympathize with his plight. It’s problematic that this invisible man isn’t a scientist or really in any way involved in the circumstances of his invisibility. He’s just a hungover dolt in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once Sam Neill’s deliciously evil David Jenkins (a government agent of some kind) discovers Nick, he’ll stop at nothing to capture, control, and weaponize this scientific breakthrough. Aided only by his new girlfriend Alice Munroe (Daryl Hannah in a charming turn), who seems improbably interested in this empty vessel of a man, Nick has to not only come to terms with the various horrors of his invisibility, but also evade capture and figure out how to regain his life. The admittedly uneven script is really kneecapped by Chevy Chase’s complete inability to feel like a normal human being who experiences doubt, anger, fear, or really much of anything genuine. Every ounce of warmth injected by Hannah is cooled by Chase; every tense moment of fear from Neill offset by Chase. It’s one of those situations where the entire film is riding on a performance and the leading man simply isn’t able to deliver.
What’s left is an uneven film, to be sure; with the thriller and romance angles very much deflated by an unconvincing lead. But the purity of the effects, the visual ingenuity of John Carpenter, and a dynamite cast of supporting characters (including the aforementioned, but also adding Stephen Tobolowsky and Michael McKean into the mix), results in a film I like a lot more than I dislike. And hell, Chase’s handling of the comedic bits are so great, one wonders if this leading man might have been a good fit for a different script focused more squarely on the comedy. In the end, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man isn’t among John Carpenter’s greatest works. But it is a fascinating entry in the catalogue of my favorite filmmaker. I love having a brand new, gorgeous Blu-ray edition of this hit-or-miss film, and will cherish owning this piece of physical media in a way I wouldn’t for a film from a lesser filmmaker.
As mentioned, this movie really is filled with visual spectacle. From the “invisible” building created by the explosion that turns Chase’s character, to the myriad ways invisibility is achieved throughout the runtime of the film, it’s a visual treat meant to be enjoyed in the best possible presentation. So getting a Blu-ray from a brand new 2K scan is a genuine treat. There are also some bonus features regarding the visual effects. I would have loved to get some of Carpenter’s thoughts in the form of a commentary on this disc, but what’s here… I greatly enjoy. This is recommended for Carpenter lovers and completists.
And I’m Out.
Memoirs Of An Invisible Man hits Blu-ray July 24th, 2018 from Scream Factory.