The 1992 film ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’ was directed by John Carpenter and starred Chevy Chase, which surely has to be one of the most unusual director/star combos to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film during the mid-1990s. There seems no common ground between Chase (a popular leading mainstream comedy man during the 1980s) and Carpenter (creator of many individualistic sci-fi/horror films) so therefore the question arises: is MOAIM more of a typical Chase or Carpenter film?
The answer surprisingly, is none of the above; it feels like a unconventional movie for both men. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the film is more interesting and enjoyable than expected (or its reputation suggests).
Chevy Chase plays Nick Halloway (he also narrates the story), a fairly non-descript businessman who one day is unfortunately caught in the middle of a scientific accident that renders him invisible. Not only does he have to deal with the horrors of his situation, but is endlessly on the run from a ruthless government agents, led by the increasingly irrational David Jenkins (Sam Neill). His only hope appears to be a woman he just met the night before, Alice (Darryl Hannah).
Considering Chase is in the lead, one would expected a light-hearted, goofy comedy based around all the possibilities of invisibility. And yet while there are comic bits, the tone of the film is surprisingly downbeat and sombre. Indeed the tone of Halloway’s narration feels like that of a struggling private eye in a film noir. Invisibility is seen as a nightmarish curse with Halloway’s life a living hell where the ability to even sleep (he can see through his eyelids) is almost impossible.
Chase’s performance is an interesting one. He largely eschews his comic persona for a more serious, intense tone. He really makes the viewer feel the despair of his character’s predicament in a convincing manner. His romantic scenes with Hannah are also appealingly done, bringing to mind his similar efforts with Goldie Hawn in his breakthrough 1978 film ‘Foul Play’. It’s a shame that Chase hasn’t attempted more roles like this during his career. In fact, he hasn’t had as interesting movie role since.
The character of Halloway is interestingly devised. We learn in the early scenes that he’s basically a non-entity pre-invisibility. He cruises through his job without much interest, has no family and not many genuine friends. In fact it’s through his invisibility and the struggles he encompasses that Halloway develops passion, intensity, romance and a genuine identity.
Probably the film’s biggest weakness is the performance of Sam Neill as Halloway’s adversary David Jenkins. Neill is way over the top in his role – it almost feels like he should have a moustache to twirl. In contrast to the more realistic style of the film and performances of Chase and Hannah, Neill’s performance seems especially ill-suited and jarring.
Carpenter’s direction is competent but impersonal – he clearly enjoys displaying the special effects demonstrating Halloway’s predicament – and he helps create a downbeat, even sour tone. But Carpenter fans would probably be hard-pressed to find many of the touches that usually define his work.
As for the special effects, they deserve particular mention. In the film’s critically lukewarm response they were the only aspect to get significant praise and it’s easy to see why. Convincingly displayed are aspects of the invisible man like seeing smoke go through his lungs and even him digesting food. They’re of almost as high a standard as the groundbreaking special effects from Terminator 2 (released almost at the same time) and stand up very well today.
MOAIM doesn’t mark a high point in the careers of either Carpenter or Chase but it is an interesting and often entertaining work that is better than its reputation.