Wednesday, August 13, 2008
FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966)
Since as far back as I can remember I have loved science fiction stories, and one of my early favorites is the exquisite FANTASTIC VOYAGE, directed by Richard Fleischer, a guy whose career couldn't have yielded a more diverse filmography if he intended it to. Think about it: Fleischer also helmed 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), THE VIKINGS (1958), DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (1967), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970), THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972), SOYLENT GREEN (1973), MANDINGO (1975), and a pair of back-to back Robert E. Howard barbarian turds, CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) and RED SONJA (1985). I mean, the leap from DOCTOR DOOLITTLE to MANDINGO alone is mind-boggling, and worthy of some kind of "Hunh? What the fuck?" award. And while Fleischer's films vary widely in quality and watchability, FANTASTIC VOYAGE is perhaps his most special effort, standing the test of time and not appearing one bit hokey despite the passage of four decades and advancements in special effects technology since its release. No joke, dear Vault reader, over the years this became my favorite science fiction film of them all.
Coming out during the height of the worldwide James Bond craze, FANTASTIC VOYAGE straddles the line between espionage thriller and updated Hugo Gernsback fodder with its tale of Cold War technology put to literally fantastic use. The United States and the Soviet Union have both developed the capability to miniaturize matter to damned near any scale desired, a feat that has staggering tactical implications such as shrinking an army — including weaponry and assault vehicles — smuggling said army into any desired theater of conflict totally undetected and enlarging said army, surprising the hell out of the enemy and devastating them utterly. The only hitch is the process has one problematic flaw: the smaller you shrink something, the faster it reverts to its original size, which rather puts the kibosh on one's plans for conquest unless your target is right across the street in the local 7/11. Luckily for the US, a scientist named Jan Benes has figured out how to make the shrinking effect last indefinitely and escapes from behind the Iron Curtain (with the help of the CIA), hauling ass to America, where the Soviets attempt to assassinate him. Fortunately for the story the attempt fails, but it leaves Benes comatose and with an inoperable blood clot in his brain.
Enter the C.M.D.F. — the Combined Miniature Deterrent Force — , a top secret organization that's got an underground complex with a fully-operational miniaturization setup ready to rock, and a team of skilled medical professionals who are ready to do the tiny thing and be reduced to microscopic size, entering Benes' brain via a wee submarine (the Proteus) and excising the blood clot via laser surgery.
A good plan in theory, but once within Benes' bloodstream the mission swiftly goes to Hell in a handcart as the Proteus crew must face unplanned and dangerous detours through the heart, the inner ear and lungs, voracious and deadly anti-bodies (think about it: the shrunken humans are a foreign invader, so the body leaps to its own defense), and a nail-biting race against time since the miniaturization effect wears off in one hour. If they aren't out of Benes' body within that time frame, things will get very, very messy indeed... Oh, and did I mention that the crew comes to realize they have a saboteur in their midst?
The Proteus crew (L-R): CIA agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd, aka Messala from BEN-HUR), medical assistant Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch, the goddess who singlehandedly shot sales of Jurgens lotion through the roof), surgeon Dr. Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy), pilot Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield), and Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance, best known as Inspector Loomis in the original HALLOWEEN). If you've seen more than three movies in your lifetime, you know exactly who the bad guy is on sight.
FANTASTIC VOYAGE is surprisingly believable (I can ignore the scientific inaccuracies such as the team being able to breathe the full-scale air molecules collected from Benes' lung during an emergency pit stop, a point not mentioned in the script) and as serious as a heart attack from start to finish, and the wise choice of not having a bombastic score adds to its tone. The protagonists are not James Bond-era super-spies, but rather a group of intelligent, skilled professionals who think quickly when the shit hits the fan, with the CIA agent being along for the ride as security (he's somewhat out of his depth when it comes to the medical aspect of the mission and very reluctant to be miniaturized). There's no romance, no attempts at the camaraderie/bonding bullshit one might expect from a "team" story," and the plot is driven by the time limitation and the tension built by that, the crew focused on their objective. The perils they endure aren't filled with action movie histrionics, but are instead events that happen organically and put the viewer firmly into the somewhat claustrophobic proceedings. The Proteus is not some tricked-out, inner-space STAR WARS precursor, but is exactly what it's supposed to be: a compact submarine designed to get the crew from point A to their destination as expediently as possible. No torpedoes, no blasters, no buzz saws, zip. Just motion, and that's okay by me. And the surgical laser is never used for any purpose other than as the surgical device it was hauled along for (well, yes and no; watch the movie to see what I mean). The lack of standard Hollywood, "crowd-pleasing" horseshit may not fly with some viewers, but in my opinion it gives the narrative a strength and realism found in few other sci-fi flicks. FANTASTIC VOYAGE treats its audience with an assumption that the viewer isn't an idiot, and I've loved it for that since I was five years old.
Another thing the film absolutely drives home in a way that too few "fantastic" films do is the unbridled sense of wonder at being one of the first people ever to see the wonders of the human biological system from within. The incredible vistas found in Benes' body — and by inference all of us — are both psychedelic and breathtaking, with free-floating lava lamp-style globules all over the place along with forests of assorted tissue, and this stunning visual impressed me more than any of the far-flung alien worlds encountered in any sci-fi flick before or since.
Sure, the "swimming" effect was achieved by suspending the actors on wires and the sets festooned with sparkly strands of brain matter and such look like something from an episode of LOST IN SPACE — as well they should since Irwin Allen scavenged them to use on that series — , but keep in mind that the stuff that could easily be handled these days via CGI was pretty much state-of-the-art for 1966 and still looks pretty damned good.
FANTASTIC VOYAGE was recently reissued in a very nice special edition DVD, finally on its own after years of being paired on a double-feature disc with the appalling VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (the movie sucks out loud, but the spinoff TV series was loads of goofball Irwin Allen-style fun), but I'm still hoping it will eventually get the full-on royal treatment it deserves and be honored with one of those drool-inducing Criterion Collection editions. But, whatever. Just as long as people can see this before the announced remake due to unspool onto the big screen in 2010, brought to us by Roland Emmerich, the asshole who unleashed INDEPENDENCE DAY, the unspeakable American GODZILLA, and the laughable 10,000 B.C. In his hands there is simply no possible way that a FANTASTIC VOYAGE remake can be any good, and I weep at the prospect of such an abortion happening at all. Thankfully the classic original is still here to thrill and delight with wonderment, so TRUST YER BUNCHE and make your kids sit through it just like my former-biology teacher mother did, an act that inadvertently hooked me on sci-fi flicks for life. Thanks, Mom!