Memoirs of an Invisible Man Review

Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase) is a busy stock analyst, too busy for much in the way of a love life. However, he’s just met documentary producer Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah) and he likes what he sees. Excusing himself from a boring meeting, he catches a quick nap…and wakes up invisible, due to a freak accident while he was asleep. And government agents led by David Jenkins (Sam Neill) are after him…

Memoirs of an Invisible Man was based on a novel by H.F. Saint. In 1992 it was an undeniable landmark in the use of digital visual effects, in between Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. But John Carpenter’s film gives the impression that showcasing these effects was first priority, and entertaining the audience second. As has been shown many times, there’s only so much mileage to be had in dazzling audiences with the latest toys in the SFX box. Without an engaging story it all becomes as hollow as Nick Halloway. And Memoirs is simply routine.

Chevy Chase period of stardom lasted half a decade or so, mostly due to National Lampoon’s Vacation and Fletch, but by 1992 he was definitely on the wane. There’s a smarminess about his persona that worked well in Fletch but becomes offputting here. And it doesn’t help that there’s very little chemistry between him and Daryl Hannah, so their supposed romance doesn’t take off. Other directors like Ridley Scott (in Blade Runner), Fred Schepisi (Roxanne) and Hector Babenco (At Play in the Fields of the Lord) got rather more out of Hannah than John Carpenter does here. Alice is a bland girlfriend part that attractive young actresses are in danger of being stuck with, until they become too old for such roles. Sam Neill gives an efficient turn as the chief villain, but he could have done this role in his sleep. No-one else in the film gives much of an impression.

Memoirs is a staging post in John Carpenter’s journey from accomplished independent to major-studio hack. This film came after a few years working independently with films like Prince of Darkness and They Live, which recovered some of the energy of his early work. But you sense his heart really isn’t in this one. Like all his cinema features bar two (Dark Star, which was half shot in 16mm, and Elvis, made for US TV but given a theatrical release abroad), Memoirs is shot in Scope (2.35:1) with anamorphic lenses. Carpenter has a reputation for mastery of the wide screen which is true as far as his earlier films go, but in his career as a whole I find this unwarranted. Memoirs does nothing very imaginative with the format, with every shot framed so that it can easily be cropped to 4:3. There are a couple which place people at each end of the screen, but you could intentionally cut back and forth between them without any loss. That said, William Fraker’s camerawork is one of the film’s better features, resisting the usual approach to comedy lighting, that is keeping everything bright and sharp. Some of the scenes are quite dark and film-noirish, so it’s a pity that the film is too flimsy to support this approach. And for someone who is invisible after the first fifteen minutes, there are too many shots of a fully-visible Chase. They may be justified as his point of view, but you sense the makers didn’t want to have their presumably quite expensive star offscreen for almost all the running time.

Warner’s DVD is encoded for Regions 2, 4 and 5. For the record, this is the complete version of the film: the cinema and previous video releases were cut to remove one use of strong language to obtain a PG certificate. As you’d expect from this distributor, the transfer is up to scratch, though a little soft in some of the darker scenes (possibly inevitable given the lower than usual lighting levels and the anamorphic lenses used). There is also some aliasing. The transfer itself is widescreen-enhanced in a ratio of 2.40:1. That’s a little wider than the 2.35:1 the film was shot in, but don’t read anything untoward into that. Cinemas often show Scope films in this slightly wider ratio to avoid splice marks, white framelines and the like appearing distractingly on screen.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 2.0, surround encoded, in the original English language and in French and Italian dubbed versions. This is certainly faithful to the original soundtrack (multichannel cinema digital sound was in its infancy in 1992), and is a professional job of work by any means. The surrounds tend to be used for Shirley Walker’s score, but there are quite a few directional sound effects: helicopters, trains and so on. Nothing much for the subwoofer to do, though. The surround information is on the digital tracks, so for once you don’t have to switch your system to Pro-Logic mode to hear it.

There are thirty-one chapters, but the scene selection menu only allows you select the first of every three up to chapter 18, then the first of every two thereafter. To select chapter 20, say, you’d have to choose 19-20 from the menu and skip forward one chapter via your remote. Subtitles are available for the feature and the extras.

As for those extras, they are sparse. There’s no trailer for one thing, and “cast and crew” just takes you to a single text page listing. There’s a short featurette: “How to Become Invisible: The Dawn of Digital FX Visual Effects”. It’s full-frame and runs 4:07. There’s a self-congratulatory tone to it, which tends to confirm my impression that the film meant more to its makers as a vehicle for the latest effects than to be entertaining to an audience. Also, this sort of featurette might have been more interesting back in the mid 1990s, but there have been loads of similar extras on other DVDs since. There are a set of outtakes, in non-anamorphic 2.40:1 and running 3:09. These are noticeably rougher in quality than the feature, with splices, speckles and other artefacts. One of the scenes has no soundtrack. This kind of feature is better with the director and/or the editor explaining why these scenes were deleted (though in many cases the reason is obvious), but we get five scenes in all, one after the other, with no context given.

Finally, on the Special Features menu click on Chevy Chase’s head and you’ll access the disc’s one Easter Egg. It’s some behind-the-scenes footage, shot on full-frame video, running 1:17.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man isn’t a terrible film but it’s not a very good one either. It’ll probably pass muster on a rainy day with an hour and a half to kill, but there are far better films out there deserving your attention. It’s also a depressing reminder of how much John Carpenter has declined since the late 70s and early 80s. Picture and sound are good, but extras are perfunctory.

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