Whew! We finally get to a film that isn’t epic-length. With a modest TRT of 1 hour, 40 minutes, Fantastic Voyage has a lot of things going for it, and I’d be lying if I were to say that relative brevity isn’t one of them.
By the mid-sixties, sci-fi movies were getting pretty serious, characterized by darker themes and tones, denser information, and more realistic characters. By 1966 we already had Fahrenheit 451 and Seconds, and before long Planet of the Apes and 2001 (not to mention star Trek on TV). And well, why not? As nightly headlines grew more sobering, and scientific knowledge advanced ever the more, it made sense that science fiction reflected those changes. Gone were the days when “Radar Men From Mars” could satisfy an audience; now they required a dose of reality in their escapism.
And Fantastic Voyage was no exception. In fact, anyone expecting to find an MST3K-worhy schlock-fest will be sorely disappointed – Voyage takes its premise seriously,
not unlike, say, a Michael Crichton novel. Perhaps too serious: there’s not a single second of levity in this film, not a joke, an anecdote or even a smile. Well, perhaps I can’t blame them: if I had to face one crisis after another, and had to race against the clock in doing so, I probably wouldn’t be smiling much either.
The story begins with a man named Grant , a military man assigned by a secret organization to join a surgical team. Their mission: to save the life of a scientist, Benes, recently hit with a car by the “other side,” by removing a life-threading blood clot from his brain. But Grant is unaware of only one thing – he’ll be performing the surgery with a laser beam, from inside of a submarine, miniaturized to the size of a molecule. His team will include a navigator, Capt, Owens; a specialist, Dr. Michaels; the chief surgeon, Dr. Duval; and his assistant, Cora. Cautious, but realizing Benes holds the secrets to the miniaturization process and must protected at all costs, Grant accepts the mission.
But once they get shrunk, trouble begins. Om top of a sixty-minute time limit, they get bombarded by corpuscles and must detour through the heart (requiring an induced cardiac arrest), suffer damage to their air tanks and must replenish their air supply from lung alveoli; go through the inner ear and go through enormous turbulence when a nurse in the outside world drops her scissors; and finally must fight off smothering antibodies, particularly Cora. Even worse, suspicious damage to the laser gun leads Grant to suspect a sabateur among them. Despite initial skepticism of Duval, it turns out to be Dr. Michaels, who gets his comeuppance when the sub starts enlarging and he gets enveloped by white blood cells. The rest of the crew abandons ship, and escapes via the optic nerve, and out through a tear duct. Having destroyed the clot with a now-repaired laser, the crew returns to normal size, and enjoys the success of their mission.
As you can probably infer from the above synopsis, Voyage’s story is quite the potboiler, but it does keep things humming nicely along. The formula pretty much follows a “crisis averted/new crisis arises” sequence repeated several times, with a whodunit and a race against the clock thrown in for added suspense. But what really elevates this work, and what I’ll always remember about it, is that smartly utilizes its setting, the human body. It’s not just used as cool window dressing; it takes each detailed section and employs it as part of the action. They face-off against corpuscles one minute, while siphoning out air from oxygenated blood cells the next. The “villain,” aside from he traitor among them, is a series of realistic threats one could actually encounter when injected into the bloodstream: antibodies, white blood cells, intensely magnified sound waves, etc. And all he while, the film celebrates the achievements of the body – through some of Duval’s dialogue, much of the film plays like a reverie to anatomy. I’ll not soon forget mediation on the wonder of respiration, where all life is sustained, and how the simple act of trading carbon dioxide for oxygen takes on great import when witnessed in epic scope. If the film’s goal was to make me appreciate how ineffably amazing it is that so much goes on inside of us, every day, then it succeeded without question.
And something else amazed me too – the amount of visible human labor that must’ve one on to bring this work to screen. Voyage, made in 1966, is from a period I like to call the “handcrafted” era of moviemaking, a time before digital imagery in which all effects, art design, set decoration, costume, makeup – everything – had to be done right there, with only a few optical effects done in post. I loved noticing how the platelets, for example, looked like small balloons behind hurled across the ship, and I delighted in seeing how he antibodies that attacked Raquel Welch looked just like plastic, clingy stuff. Sure, it as only narrowly convincing, but I didn’t care, because the spirit and the labor and the good writing were there. And all that 60s-era technology, what with he ginormous cathode-ray monitors and the flashy computers wit illuminated big buttons? Just icing on the cake.
The script was pretty smart to have Grant as the main protagonist. Realistically, he has no credentials which would get him a job on board the Proteus (the script just explains that he’s a good communications officer). But dramatically, he serves as the audience’s entry point, a character we can identify with to guide us through this netherword, amid info-spewing scientists. And like a everyman, he solves some f the ships problems with his workaround knowledge, like mending the laser with a radio transistor. And who is first to spot Dr. Michaels as the traitor? That’s right – the ordinary Joe, who’s got the people-smarts none of the other eggheads have.
Much was made of Raquel Welch’s presence, and to the film’s credit, she’s not exploited, at least not very much. No, she doesn’t have a whole lot of significant dialogue, but she’s credible in her role. And how can you go wrong with reliable character actor Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Michaels? I suppose it’s pretty guessable that he’s the real culprit, but I think that’s only because he plays the turncoat role so well.
All told, a fantastic film, and a classic of its genre. And it holds up remarkably well.