Pre-CGI spectacle over substance: Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966)

fantasticvoyage

Fantastic Voyage has been parodied and imitated a multitude of times over the decades, and after seeing it, I can understand why. It’s not just because the premise –a craft and its occupants are miniaturised and injected into a human body so that they can perform life-saving brain surgery– is, well, fantastic, but because its characters are so thin that replacing them is not just easy, but makes the story more enjoyable.

The movie has a decent cast, even if leading man Stephen Boyd as tough guy Grant is dull as all heck. Donald Pleasance and Arthur Kennedy are capable of handling much more than they are given here, and do manage to make their characters the most interesting. Kennedy’s suspicious surgeon Duval is prone to off-kilter philosophising about inner space and outer space, viewing humankind as existing between two infinities. Pleasance’s Michaels is crazy because he’s been claustrophobic since being trapped during bombing raids on London during WWII, and also because he’s played by Donald Pleasance. The ever-reliable Edmund O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell, waiting topside, get nothing notable other than a nice moment in which one of them considers squashing an insect, but finds his perspective on doing such things has changed.

In the midst of all this, it seems natural that the film’s sole named female character, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), should be so inattentively written that she becomes little more than a damsel in distress. At least she does this in a novel way: falling into the patient’s inner ear hairs and getting smothered by antibodies. It should be noted that her wetsuit, much remarked upon by people who’ve seen the film, is not too different to the ones the men wear; Welch just has a different body to Pleasance, that’s all.

Cora isn’t so far off being a decent character. She does start out promisingly; she joins the mission at Duval’s insistence, and gets to show off with a laser, putting an end to Grant sizing up her abilities as a housewife. Imagine if the script played up on the fact that Grant likes her but doesn’t trust Duval, while Duval trusts her inplicitly, or if Duval became incapacitated and she had to perform the surgery instead of him. There’s a few of my ideas for a remake; just don’t let J. J. Abrams anywhere near it.

By showing the complexity of the human body, Fantastic Voyage aims to create a sense of wonder and give the viewer themselves a change of perspective. It’s quite charming in this. However, it’s so focused on the special effects that it becomes somewhat dull, even if some of the effects still look impressive. Despite being an influential movie, it’s not terribly enjoyable to watch.

There’s plenty of alternate takes on Fantastic Voyage out there. At the lower end of the range is the Doctor Who story The Invisible Enemy, which is far too ambitious for that show’s budget and enters so-bad-it’s-good territory. Since The Doctor isn’t human, the story often doesn’t even try to make the interior of his body look recognisable, or even organic. Joe Dante’s Innerspace from 1987, however, had a far, far bigger budget, and manages to be a fun movie that draws inspiration from Fantastic Voyage while having enough originality to be more than a remake or a parody. Martin Short and Dennis Quaid give strong performances, but Robert Picardo steals the movie out from under them. Both The Invisible Enemy and Innerspace are more entertaining, in their own ways, than Fantastic Voyage.

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