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Fantastic Voyage (1966)

On Enzymes and End Games

Sometimes watching old movies is a weird experience.  I popped in 1966’s Fantastic Voyage the other day, knowing only that it was a special-effects-heavy pre-cursor to Innerspace, and that it starred Raquel Welch.  Right off the bat, my modern film-brain kicked in, ticking off a list of preconceived ideas about what I was in for:

1.  1960s Special Effects:  Probably lots of papier mache sets, strings on flying saucers and matte paintings that would not benefit at all from being displayed on a high-definition TV.

2.  Innerspace Precursor:  Tons of camp, for sure; Innerspace was a bizarre adventure comedy starring Martin Short and Dennis Quaid, so it must have been inspired by something equally silly, right?

3.  Raquel Welch: Sultry, sexual icon from several decades ago, who I’d last seen hawking exercise equipment in the 80s.

None of these were fair thoughts—just quick associations I’d made before pressing “Play”.

And that’s why quick associations are bullshit.  Fantastic Voyage is a great little film that surprised me in every respect.  The acting, sets, and special effects serve an engaging science fiction story that’s heavier on the fiction than the science.  It’s not a movie that you’ll need to turn your brain off to enjoy, but there are definitely story points that benefit from being dismissed as “future science”.

The movie stars Stephen Boyd as Grant, a CIA agent who’s called upon to provide security for a team of scientists and doctors working to save the life of Jan Benes (Jean Del Val).  Benes holds the key to prolonging a top-secret miniaturization process that allows government agents to shrink people and materials to molecular size—a process that is currently sustainable for only sixty minutes.  On the way to a military compound for debriefing, Benes’ motorcade is attacked, and he falls into a coma.

Grant is skeptical of the process, especially when he realizes that the team he’s protecting will be shrunk and injected into Benes’ body in order to remove a dangerous clot.  He boards their ship, the Proteus, and begins a long, strange journey through Benes’ lungs, heart, ear, and eye.

The other crewmembers are forgettable, save for Cora (Welch), the assistant to Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence).  Cora is notable only because she’s the only female on the ship—and she’s Raquel Welch, international sex symbol.  What’s weird about her role in this film is that for half of it, she sports a lab coat and beehive hairdo, and for the other half she’s in a white, form-fitting jumpsuit with a beehive hairdo.  There’s nothing terribly lotion-worthy about her in this movie, per se; which is a nice surprise.  She’s not just the Proteus’ eye candy.  She’s a ballsy, intelligent woman.

I fault the film—or maybe the era—for its slightly sexist third-act turn, when Cora is attacked by Benes’ antibodies (depicted as flying, flesh-colored seaweed) and needs to be rescued by a team of men who escape peril altogether.  In general, though, it was nice to see Cora testing lasers instead of fetching coffee.

Dr. Michaels is important because early in the mission it is discovered that “The Other Side” (aka The Russians) have planted a mole in the operation, and that this saboteur is likely onboard the Proteus.  Maybe people watching Fantastic Voyage in 1966 were surprised to learn that Michaels was the Russian spy, but I pegged him from the word “go”.  It’s easy to do now, if you consider that Pleasence (A was the actor would go on to play Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice the following year and B) he’s the only crewmember who speaks with an English accent.

Okay, perhaps neither is a solid indicator—but they pointed me in the right direction.

Fantastic Voyage’s story is almost secondary to the special effects (which answers the question, “Why is James Cameron producing a remake?”).  But unlike most of today’s sci-fi blockbusters, this movie’s visual tricks made me wonder, “How did they do that?”  Given the era in which this movie was made, I was blown away by how convincing the exterior Proteus shots were as it traveled through weird, lavish bio-landscapes; and the few scenes where the scientists leave the ship to remove obstructions look like they were filmed on grandiose sets; the actors bounce around them as if they are either underwater or suspended in an anti-gravity tank—though I didn’t see any bubbles or wires.

Granted, there are some scenes where the actors are clearly standing on the ground and just waving their hands around in a “treading water” motion, but otherwise it’s all very convincing.

I love the way that director Richard Fleischer and his crew brought blood vessels and antibodies to life with the most creative use of the materials they had.  Sure it’s strange to see the immune system represented as a giant globule of suds eating Dr. Michaels (Spoiler?), but the context of the scene instantly dispels the cheesiness.  I can only imagine how sterile an updated version of Fantastic Voyage might be, with a handful of actors standing against a green screen, with all of the sets, exteriors and, hell, probably even their outfits pasted into the scene later.  The people behind this movie created a tangible world for its characters to inhabit.

I also dig the way the movie played with my notions of the “Crew in Space” movie.  After years of watching sci-fi films in which a group of people venture into the unknown, I fully expected half the crew to be dead by the forty-five-minute mark, with only two survivors making it to the end—Grant and Cora, I’d assumed.  It seems this is a convention that began after Fantastic Voyage came out; I wouldn’t go so far as to call the finale a Disney Ending, but it’s definitely devoid of the genre’s modern cynicism.

Maybe it’s odd to review this film through the prism of ones that came after it.  But since I was born eleven years after Fantastic Voyage was released, I can only assess it on those terms.  I don’t know what it meant for fans of science fiction in the 60s, but as a modern genre appreciator, it gives me hope that I can reach into the past to find a treasure trove of stories that current 3D CG distractions don’t offer.  Fantastic Voyage isn’t flashy or fast-paced, but it’s a mind-tickler in all the right places.