"Medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity, between outer and inner spaces. And there's no limit to either."
High-concept science fiction and fantasy films are more or less the norm these days, but in 1966, the large-scale, “A” picture type of treatment afforded Fantastic Voyage was pretty unusual. 20th Century Fox spent a lot of dough on this thing, and it shows. The movie’s premise is absurd, well beyond the realms of scientific plausibility, but at the same time, ingenious and wildly imaginative. Despite being over 40 years old, I think the film still stands up well, and I find the visual effects – state of the art for their day – quite impressive, despite their dated nature.
And mainly, Fantastic Voyage is just fun, plain and simple.
The movie opens with secret agent Grant (Stephen Boyd) disembarking from a plane in the U.S., handing off Benes, a defecting scientist, to a waiting government escort. Thinking his work done, Grant heads off for some much needed R & R, but he’s barely loosened his tie before he’s swept away to a secret underground installation named CMDF (Combined Miniature Defense Forces) and “volunteered” for a desperate mission. Seem Benes was injured in an attack by assailants from “the other side” (read: the Soviet Bloc) and as a result, suffered a concussion and a blood clot in his brain. The information he holds in his mind is vital to U.S. interests, and there's only one way to save his life - to operate from the inside.
General Carter (Edmund O’Brien) briefs Boyd on the plan: he’s to join a small team of scientists who will crew a specially-designed atomic submarine called the Proteus. The kicker: the Proteus will be shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the comatose man’s bloodstream. Grant and his team must pilot the sub through the man’s blood vessels and make their way up into his brain, where they will use a laser rifle to clear the blood clot and save his life.
Grant is understandably incredulous at the idea, but the General is true to his word: the technology does exist. (Grant: "Wait a minute. They can't shrink me." General: "Our miniaturizer can shrink anything." Grant: "I don't want to be miniaturized!") Boyd soon meets the other members of the Proteus’ crew: naval pilot and designer of the sub, Capt. Bill Owens (William Redfield); Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence), nominal leader of the team; Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), top neurosurgeon in the country; and his assistant, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch). At first, Grant feels the odd man out in this group, but will soon find his experience at troubleshooting, thinking "outside the box" and general resourcefulness - gained by years in the espionage game - invaluable.
Then the mission begins. Once shrunken, the team have only 60 minutes to complete their assignment before they, and the sub, will begin to revert to their usual size. Along the way, they’ll encounter many wonders and even more dangers – including an enemy agent in their midst, eager to sabotage the mission…
Richard Fleisher was no stranger to big-budget effects-heavy films, having directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Disney back in 1954, but Fantastic Voyage was in a whole other realm. According to Jeff Bond’s commentary, Fleischer didn’t particularly enjoy the making of Voyage, with its cramped sub sets and myriad difficult, fiddly effects shots. Luckily, he had a slew of skilled technicians working hard to bring the inner world of the human body to life.
Jack Martin Smith and Dale Hennesy created the many amazing sets - both miniature and large scale - depicting the heart, lungs, brain and other internal organs used in the film. Harper Goff (who earlier designed the Nautilus for Disney) designed the Proteus. An instantly iconic ship design, the Proteus cost $100,000 to build, was 42 feet long, made of fiberglass, and weighed approximately 8,000 pounds. Not only was the exterior of the sub built, but the interior was also a practical set, nicely futuristic-looking and with many large windows to allow for blue-screen backgrounds to be projected behind the actors. L.P. Abbott, Art Cruickshank and Emil Kosa, Jr. were responsible for the various practical special effects techniques used to realize this mysterious inner world, and won an Oscar for their efforts.
All these massive sets and clever effects really lend a scope and magisterial weight to the film that CGI just wouldn't pull off as well. Of course, not all of the effects stand up today. Some of the wire-work (credited to Peter Foy) to simulate the crew “swimming” outside the sub is a little sloppy, with the wires occasional clearly visible despite the filmmakers’ best efforts to conceal them. Some of the close-up shots of the sub, cast visible inside as it moves and turns, now look a little dodgy, due to the prop's unstable movement and the supreme difficulty at that time of cleanly matting in the blue screen background shots. But in general, the film is a true visual feast. Many of the long shots of the Proteus traveling through various parts of the body are lavish, full of at times surreal color, and achieve a weird beauty.
Fleisher also was graced with a first-rate cast. Irish-born Stephen Boyd makes a fine, stalwart hero. With his deep, resonant voice, height and rough good looks, Boyd seems destined to have been a big star, but sadly, it didn’t work out that way. After a handful of meaty parts in prestige pictures like Ben-Hur and The Oscar, his career seemed to peter out, and he died of a heart attack at the too-young age of 45. Judging by his work in Fantastic Voyage, he may have made a decent James Bond.
1966 was a watershed year for Raquel Welch. Fantastic Voyage was the second of a one-two punch of star-making films for her that year. Voyage came out shortly after Welch donned her famous fun bikini in Hammer’s One Million Years, B.C. Even though her character is initially presented as a skilled medical professional, Welch isn’t given much to work with in the script, and the main impression one walks away with after the credits roll is her statuesque form, encased in a tight-fitting white wetsuit. She’s quite a sight to behold, and emerges as perhaps the film’s most memorable “visual effect.”
The supporting cast of Voyage is especially strong. Arthur Kennedy, so adept at playing the cynical, world weary sort, is cast against type as a man of deep religious conviction who also happens to be a surgeon. Donald Pleasence expertly alternates between cool, collected man of science and twitchy nervousness. The dialogue is sometimes reverential to a fault, but that does give the film a nice sense of wonder. A little more dry humor wouldn't have gone amiss, although old pros O'Brien and Arthur O'Connell squeak a few wry lines in as they fret about in the lab. (There’s a cute little running gag about O’Brien’s failure to cut down on sugar in his coffee during this high-stress operation.)
The screenplay is by Harvey Kleiner, adapted by David Duncan from a short story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby. The writers do a good job making their goofy premise credible, with lots of medical jargon and a serious, clinical approach. Everyone involved tries their best to add a semblance of factual reality to the fantastical proceedings. The premise is laid out clearly in the film's opening, and once the Proteus enters Benes' body and the mission begins, events play out more or less in "real" time - a clever touch that builds up considerable tension. Interestingly, it isn’t until this point, when the mission beings (approximately the 37 minute mark), that Leonard Rosenman’s unique, complex score kicks in. He creates an eerie, atonal soundscape that nicely complements the far-out visual designs.
Fantastic Voyage was shown often and to great success on television, and produced some interesting spin-offs. Famed SF author and polymath Isaac Asimov tackled the novelization, and tried his damnedest to make the story a little more scientifically believable. There was also a Saturday morning cartoon series under the same name. Decades later, Joe Dante did a modern, comedic twist on the story with his film Innerspace, starring Dennis Quaid and Martin Short. Far funnier was a The Simpsons’ "Treehouse of Terror" spoof, wherein the Simpson family embark on a similar mission (with Marge filling out a tight white wetsuit just like Raquel Welch) inside Mr. Burn’s body to rescue the accidentally-swallowed Maggie.
Despite its wonky science, Fantastic Voyage remains a suspenseful, fun film, very audacious for its day. Visual effects-wise, this must have been the Avatar of the 60s, really wowing audiences and giving them something they had never seen before. It must surely be regarded as one of the biggest F/X spectacles made up to that time (soon to be surpassed by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey a few years later). My advice: don't sweat the scientific loopholes...park the practical part of your brain at the door, settle back and let yourself be swept away on a unique, visually-stunning sci-fi adventure into “inner” space.
DVD Note: Fantastic Voyage received a nice special edition DVD in 2007, complete with a short feature on the film's special effects, a full-length commentary with Jeff Bond, and a second commentary/isolated score track (with Bond, Nick Redman and Jon Burlingame talking about the score and film for the first 37 minutes before Rosenman's music begins), among other goodies. It'll do fine, until a shiny new Blu-Ray transfer comes along.
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