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John Carpenter doesn't get nearly enough credit for his versatility.
In a career spanning more than five decades, the legendary writer/director/composer has rightly been lauded as a master of the horror movie, but he's also delivered memorable forays into other genres. Like one of his biggest influences, the legendary Golden Age director Howard Hawks, Carpenter's ambitions have often stretched into the realm of pure action (Assault on Precinct 13), sci-fi and romance (Starman), and even kung fu comedy (Big Trouble in Little China). Results have varied, but over the course of these films Carpenter has proven that he can do more than horror, and that he can even deliver classics outside the scary movie world.
Then there's Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
A pet project of star Chevy Chase that spent years in development before finally landing on Carpenter's desk, Memoirs was a disappointment when it arrived in theaters 30 years ago. Since then, one of ILM's most impressive films has seemingly been forgotten by all but the Carpenter career completists and Chase devotees who take time to seek it out. Revisiting Invisible Man three decades on, though, it's clear there's more to Memoirs than just an interesting idea that didn't quite land with audiences. It's certainly not among Carpenter's masterpieces, but it offers a certain kind of genre filmmaking Carpenter rarely got to flex, and with the help of some beautifully-executed visual effects, it's well worth another look.
The "memoirs" of the title take the form of an extended monologue delivered by Nick Halloway (Chase), a stock analyst and playboy who has been rendered invisible. With shady guys in trench coats closing in on him, Nick sets up a video camera in an effort to tell his story to the world, and we flash back to how it all went down. It seems that Nick wandered into the wrong room after getting board during an investor presentation at a secretive laboratory, and a few mishaps later, ended up completely invisible. As he struggles to figure out what we wrong and how he can fix it, Nick has to learn to wield his invisibility to avoid an amoral CIA operative (Sam Neill) who sees him as an asset, while turning to a woman he just met (Daryl Hannah) for help in figuring out what to do next.
While this setup, and the presence of Chevy Chase in the early '90s, has all the makings of a wacky sci-fi comedy, Chase was actually determined to make the project a more serious piece to prove his own versatility. It didn't necessarily work in the end, but part of the appeal of Memoirs of an Invisible Man lies in Carpenter's attempts to satisfy his star's intentions and make a film that's part noir adventure, part love story, and part sci-fi thriller, all wrapped up by some truly memorable visual effects courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic. Though the script makes this delicate balancing act a little more difficult, particularly since Carpenter was brought in late in the process and didn't get to craft the story himself, Carpenter does an admirable job corralling the variety of story elements at play here. It's actually one of his best-looking movies, thanks to Carpenter's own sensibilities and cinematography by the great William A. Fraker (Bullitt, Rosemary's Baby), and the seamlessness of the visual effects only serve to make it look more polished and stylish.
But even beyond its slick exterior and great use of invisibility as an opportunity for various visual gags, there's a lot going on in Memoirs of an Invisible Man that works, particularly in a modern world obsessed with privacy or the lack thereof. Nick isn't just a guy who gets swept up in a bad situation, but a guy who does his best to avoid all real attention on himself. He likes his life very much the way it is, largely sealed off from everyone else save for his various leisure activities. His solitude is prized, and so he avoids attachments and trouble, right up until the moment that he lands himself in the ultimate form of solitude. Suddenly, the guy who fought for so long to be largely invisible to the world actually is a literal invisible man. His only way out seems to be relying on the few connections he's made with other people who might be willing to listen to him. It's a fascinating premise, and while the script doesn't always carry it in the most interesting directions, Carpenter seems fascinated with that particular thematic hook.
Perhaps the most common criticism of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, at least in terms of various reassessments floating around online, is that Carpenter's barely in it. As a director for hire, he didn't get to put his own stamp on it as much as he did with other projects, and therefore the film is, its detractors argue, devoid of much of his charm and particular concerns about the world. While I'm not here to argue that Memoirs is secretly a Carpenter masterpiece that we all somehow missed, I am here to tell you that there's more Carpenter here than meets the eye.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a film that bears little resemblance to many of his other works, but that's in some ways the point. Carpenter has spoken before about his love for other genres beyond the realm of horror, and his love of certain Golden Age Hollywood directors who could do just about anything. With this film, he asserts his own ability to do more than the genre films forever associated with his name, and in the process he got to do some interesting musing on the nature of human loneliness, connection, and what it means to exist in a world that literally and figuratively doesn't see you. All that, plus some very stylish craft, is enough to give Memoirs of an Invisible Man fresh consideration as a fascinating part of the Carpenter canon.