When I say that John Carpenter is a director who does not try too hard, I mean that as a compliment. He manages an accomplished and tightly composed visual style without indulging himself, and he scripts his films with the barest of exposition. Hell, he's so taut he typically only has time for one or two good performances per film. When he quit the studio system for a time in the late '80s, you could hardly tell these lower budget films apart from the seminal cult work he made at the start of the decade.
However, you can see a massive difference in Carpenter's 1992 return to a major studio (Warner Bros): Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Given $40 million, almost twice the highest amount he'd previously enjoyed for a project, Carpenter could take advantages of breakthroughs in digital animation, which was so cheaply rendered in his other films that it looked outdated even compared to contemporaneous releases. With this extreme (for Carpenter) cash pile, the director and his effects team crafted one of the most impressive uses of digital animation in the early '90s, not as innovative or overwhelming as the work on James Cameron's Terminator 2 but nearly as clever.
Why, then, was the film such a big failure at the box office, halting Carpenter's momentum as he broke back into the system before he truly got started? Perhaps the casting of Chevy Chase and foreknowledge of the director's penchant for goofy, light satire doomed it, because it's important to note that Memoirs is not a comedy. Oh, it gets some laughs here and there, both from the script and Carpenter's sight gags, but Dana Olsen and William Goldman's screenplay is clearly meant to be a straightforward thriller built around the effects.
As such, it succeeds admirably. Chase plays Nick Halloway, a businessman without surviving family, a partner, many friends or even a committed work ethic. He simply is, until, after a particularly hard drinking session with a beautiful friend of a friend (Daryl Hannah), he passes out at the office as an experiment in one of its labs goes horribly awry. He wakes to find the building seemingly on the edge of collapse, missing huge chunks in the structure as if a bomb went off. Yet the walls are intact, merely invisible in places, along with our hapless protagonist.
Before any potentially comic situation arises, special agents arrive on the scene, headed by the amoral David Jenkins (Sam Neill, deliciously wicked without overplaying it). Jenkins and the rest of the response crew realize that a person has been affected when they spot a hat moving back and forth and screaming for help.
Jenkins sees the immense potential of Halloway as A) the best CIA agent the world has ever (not) seen or B) a ticket to big money for another country to take advantage of Nick's possibilities. Nick overhears David's plan and manages to escape and heads out on the lam, pursued by a team of government agents operating without clearance from Langley so Jenkins can catch his prize. Carpenter manages the chase with the same skill he displayed in thrillers like Escape from New York, flagging for an odd bit of comic relief that actually serves more to examine Nick's state of mind than to wreak repetitive gags based on the premise.
Chase has never been so reserved, and as a comic actor he always excelled by projecting an aura of "I don't give a damn if you like me or not" swagger. Basing his career on this style of acting allows him to slip into the drama of the story with ease. Nothing about the story is particularly deep, but Chase almost makes you care when he off-handedly mentions in the voiceover how he'd always dreamed of being invisible as a shy kid; indeed, Jenkins looks over his profile detailing his lack of emotional connections to anyone or anything, and he remarks "He was invisible before he was invisible."
Setting aside such moments, as well as a largely unnecessary romantic subplot between Hannah and Chase that is not grating but also not relevant in any way other than to give Halloway his first real emotional tether to the world, Memoirs of an Invisible Man caters entirely to its Hawksian take on a Hitchcock wrong man thriller. It moves so quickly that it has no time for Carpenter's usual satire: vague references are made to Jenkins' involvement in a notorious operation in Iran, but such brief references are straight-faced, not peevish.
But let's go back to those effects. The opening shot, of Nick setting up a video camera to tape his titular memoirs, sets the stage for what's to come. To prove that he's not simply recording a voiceover for a shot of an empty chair, Nick unwraps a piece of bubble gum and chews it, the perfect cube of gum squishing and twisting around in the air before the outline of a tongue stretches it out and blows a bubble. It's such a simple thing, yet so striking (certainly for its time period), and it shows what might have been the start of a brilliant new phase of a career for the director of a handful of the best low-budget genre pictures of all time. Shots of Nick drinking an the liquid sloshing around where his stomach should be recall a bit of Cameron's work on The Abyss, though I did find myself wondering why Nick couldn't eat solid foods to avoid the ungainly sight of meals digesting when the average human carries several pounds of undigested meat in his intestines. I suppose anything that was in him at the time of the accident was made invisible with the rest of him, and now I find myself wondering if his first few trips to the bathroom afterward resulted in invisible waste, but let us not dwell on such matters.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man is, like most of Carpenter's films, far from a masterpiece, but it's a terrific genre picture with enough twists to liven up the rigidity of the invisible man conceit. Hannah is a dynamic actress, too dynamic for a role as underwritten as Alice's, but Sam Neill is the best human villain in a Carpenter film since Isaac Hayes nearly stole the show in Escape from New York. Plus, it's interesting to see more comically oriented actors like Chase and Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame (in a small role) either playing their laughs as semi-sophisticated -- a premature ejaculation gag involving McKean a notable exception -- and it's a shame the film tanked and earned such lousy reviews for Chase (just before his chat show came and went), who ran for cover to mugging goofiness and never looked back, only recently finding a good outlet for it on the show Community. It also must have stuck in Carpenter's craw something fierce, having won back some fans with They Live after Big Trouble in Little China underperformed and Prince of Darkness failed to make a splash, only to lose them once more here. But for those, like me, who assumed that the '90s were nothing but excruciating failure for the director, Memoirs is a nice riposte, not in the first tier of Carpenter's corpus but a surprisingly solid companion for a double-header with a good Hitchcock chaser.