2 out of 5 stars

H.F Saint wrote one novel that earned him $2.5M and never wrote another. Aged 45 at the time, Saint wanted to tell a story about an invisible man because of its commercial potential (well, he was a Wall Street businessman), and Memoirs of an Invisible Man was eventually sold for $5,000 to Atheneum Books. But before it was even published, a half-finished copy made its way into the hands of Hollywood actor Chevy Chase, who became interested in using it as a springboard away from comedy and into more dramatic roles. A bidding war ensued between various studios until Warner Bros. bought the film rights for $1.35M and duly hired William Goldman to adapt it into a screenplay. H.F Saint, ironically, disappeared.

The late Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) spent a few years developing the movie but left the project once it became clear Chase was dead serious about avoiding the comedic potential. Goldman had written the script knowing Chase was going to be the lead, so his drafts read like “Clark Griswold becoming invisible”, but Chase was adamant he wanted the film to focus on the loneliness of being invisible, with some romance and adventure added to the mix. Goldman eventually left under a cloud, filing a lawsuit against the studio for not paying him for all his hard work.

Robert Collector (Red Heat) and Dana Olsen (The ‘Burbs) then took a crack at Goldman’s script, aiming to deliver something more serious. Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie) was now attached to direct because of his experience working with VFX, although after eight months Chase replaced him with John Carpenter (The Thing). It possibly helped that the ‘Master of Horror’ wasn’t known for comedy, although Warner Bros. wasn’t convinced someone known for Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1981) was the best choice for a more lighthearted affair. Carpenter neverthekess worked with the writers to craft something described as “North by Northwest meets Starman”, the latter of which he directed. 

Memoirs of an Invisible Man concerns a stock analyst called Nick Halloway (Chase) who’s accidentally turned invisible during a shareholders’ meeting at Magnascopic Laboratories, after leaving the presentation and taking a nap elsewhere just as a lab explodes and the building is evacuated without his knowledge. Waking up sometime later, Nick realises he’s been turned invisible thanks to the meltdown, along with various sections of the building he’s still inside, which understandably causes him a great deal of wooziness. But after CIA operative David Jenkins (Sam Neill) arrives at the scene, realising the value of someone like David to the field of espionage, Nick decides to go on the run rather than risk becoming a lab rat. And so, with Nick now stuck being invisible, he has to evade a CIA task force sent to capture him (armed with heat-vision goggles and dogs), and later enlists the help of a beautiful TV documentarian called Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah) he’d met at a club and arranged a date with.

Saint’s novel, published in 1987, was received quite well at the time, mostly for its exploration of what being invisible would actually be like for someone. It caught enough people’s imagination that this movie got made five years later, and it’s true that Memoirs of an Invisible Man’s highlights are the insightful little touches about Nick’s experiences being transparent. It was also an opportunity for ILM to use their skills to depict invisibility with a $40M budget, pushing what was possible at the time with some early CGI…

Carpenter had to shoot scenes that involved Chase’s character twice with VistaVision motion control cameras, with the actor wearing a blue hooded bodysuit the VFX artists could erase and substitute for the background plate. Chase also had to wear blue facial cosmetics, dye smeared around his mouth and teeth, and uncomfortable blue eyeball-sized contact lenses, in order for ILM to similarly erase the flesh areas of his body. CGI clothes were sometimes tracked into shots, so the finished effect could realistically show the inside of clothes usually obscured by a human body. It also took a great deal of work to digitally erase the shadows Chase cast in scenes, although not all were caught if you’re eagle-eyed!

The VFX isn’t as gobsmacking as it was for audiences in ’92, although the tricks used to convince people they’re (not) seeing an invisible man mostly hold up. I particularly love an early shot of Nick chewing bubble gum, which can be seen squished and manipulated by an unseen mouth and tongue. But most of the cutting-edge VFX are saved for later moments, as there’s still some reliance on older techniques (like giving the illusion of someone being present but invisible with curtains and doors rigged to move by themselves). A few of the floating CGI objects stand out as being phoney looking today (but still a step up from dangling stuff on fishing line), and there’s obviously a lack of detail in an otherwise bravura sequence when Nick’s “appears” like a shimmering ghost during a downpour of rain. The VFX don’t embarrass themselves decades later, however. Besides, the film often avoids having to rely on ILM because a lot of shots are from Nick’s own POV, or simply have Chase be visible on camera and ask the audience to accept that nobody else can see him in scenes. A special mention must also go to Chase for managing to plausibly act like a “blind man” whenever he has to put on his clothes, that have likewise turned invisible, or stare through his own arm while trying to locate a wrist-watch he’s wearing. Subtle moments of performance, but they sell the idea that Nick’s invisible without even showing that to the audience.

Unfortunately, however, everything outside of the VFX is a washout with this movie. It’s absurd how quickly Nick and Alice fall in love with each other, playing more to Chase’s vanity than any truthfulness about the characters. One can almost imagine Chase dictating how the movie’s going to open with Daryl Hannah (Roxanne) falling instantly head-over-heels with him, and just getting his way because the movie was being fuelled by his notoriously inflated ego. Chase’s company Cornelius Productions was even created to shepherd this movie into being.

The story’s also haphazardly told and unsatisfying. The way Nick is turned invisible doesn’t really work, and it seems strange they don’t even foreshadow that the resident scientists are working on invisibility. You can tell the story isn’t really being driven by anything other than a desire to get an invisible man on the run from the CIA, which is why the second act’s relatively decent because that’s where the film has the most fun with Nick having to adapt to his new normal. Nick’s yuppie friend George Talbot (Michael McKean) and a love-rival for Alice’s affections, Richard (Gregory Paul Martin), don’t really bring anything much to the story either.

Chase’s decision to make Memoirs of an Invisible Man more of a sci-fi adventure than a high-concept comedy is the biggest failing. Tellingly, there’s one sequence where Nick “puppeteers” a drunk into hailing a taxi cab for him, making him “talk” to the driver by twiddling his lips, while the poor man’s actually unconscious, and it’s the most entertaining thing that happens with the concept. If the film had contained more silly ideas like that, this might have done for invisibility what Innerspace (1987) did for miniaturisation. Chase’s career was on the skids by the early-’90s, but there was an unshakeable expectation this would be a broad comedy because of his involvement, so it’s no surprise the lack of big laughs didn’t help. And anyone going to see it because of Carpenter’s involvement might have expected something edgier and scarier, but the film also lacks teeth. Carpenter’s own career was on a slide around this time, too, and never got back on track after his second big flop after Big Trouble in Little China (1986)—although he clearly enjoyed working with Sam Neill, whom he went on to work with on In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

Speaking of Neill, this wasn’t the first big-budget adaptation of a high-concept sci-fi novel he’d be involved with, but suffice to say the following year’s Jurassic Park (1993) worked out better for him! I’m not sure the same could be said for poor Daryl Hannah, who shot this film alongside a TV remake of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1993) for HBO, to mixed reviews. 

The production of the movie was a nightmare for Carpenter, who found he was always battling the studio over his artistic vision, later saying of Warner Bros. they’re “in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies.” He also hated working with Chase and Hannah because they were “impossible to direct.” Chase allegedly refused to wear his blue makeup sometimes (as the movie was being shot during an uncomfortable heatwave) and his unprofessionalism prevented the filming of scenes that required VFX to begin as soon as possible. The only positive for Carpenter was probably working with Shirley Walker, one of only three composers to score a movie he directed other than himself, whom he rehired to co-score Escape From L.A (1997).

On 28 February 1992, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was released into US cinemas, debuting in the No.2 slot behind Wayne’s World, but it only grossed $14.3M theatrically. The reviews were mostly negative, although the cutting-edge VFX was praised and is now seen as a forgotten digital benchmark around the time of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park. Hollywood turned its back on invisible men for a many years after this flopped, until Paul Verhoeven returned to the well for Hollow Man (2000), which was more successful but didn’t do well with critics either. Today, Memoirs of an Invisible Man can mainly be seen, no pun intended, as something of a nexus point for careers starting on an irrevocable decline. John Carpenter refuses to even talk about this movie decades later. It’s like it vanished from his memory.

USA • FRANCE | 1992 | 99 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: John Carpenter.
writers: Robert Collector, Dana Olsen & William Goldman (based on the novel by H.F Saint).
starring: Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Michael McKean & Stephen Tobolowsky.