Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fantastic Voyage: A Li'l Sci Fi Fun

An assassination attempt by the "other side" leaves scientist Dr. Jan Benes in a coma with a critical brain injury. When security expert Grant (Stephen Boyd) inquires why Benes is so valuable, the cryptic response is: "He's the only scientist who knows the answer to what we're after." Unfortunately, there's no way to operate on Benes' brain without killing him...at least not by conventional means. As a result, the CMDF is called into action.

That stands for the Combined Miniature Deterrent Force, which has the technology to reduce anything in size. As General Carter (Edmund O'Brien) explains to Grant: "We can shrink an army and put it in a bottle cap." The CMDF plans to shrink a team of surgeons, place them aboard a submarine called the Proteus, and inject them into Benes' bloodstream. Their mission is to travel to the scientist's brain and use a laser to relieve pressure from a blood clot. There's only one catch: the team will return to their normal size within sixty minutes--and there's also a suspected saboteur on board.

What I admire the most about Fantastic Voyage is the way its outlandish--but highly imaginative--premise is handled. Every cast member plays it straight; there's not a knowing wink to be found. Even Grant, the initial skeptic with whom the audience identifies, accepts the miniaturization technology without much of a fuss. As a result, the movie gets down to business and that, of course, is a mix of suspense, action, and special effects.

The sources of the film's suspense are definitely unusual. For example, when a strong current propels the Proteus off-course, the only new route to Benes' brain is through the heart chamber. Earlier in the film, we learn that the heart chamber is the one place the Proteus must avoid because the pumping blood would crush the little ship. So what to do? General Carter, who has been drinking a lot of coffee (with massive amounts of sugar) suggests that Benes' heart be stopped long enough for the Proteus to get through the chamber. The catch is that once the heart is stopped, Bene must be revived within sixty seconds or he may not get revived at all. And, according to Carter's slide-rule calculations, it will take the Proteus crew 57 seconds to navigate the route. Hmm...three seconds to spare is cutting it pretty close!

As expected, the Proteus faces numerous obstacles along the way, from angry white corpucles to loud noises in the inner ear to sabotage. It might seem episodic except that sequences move swiftly once the CMDF team enters Benes' body. Fantastic Voyage may not be as good a movie as director Richard Fleischer's other submarine movie--Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--but it's more exciting overall and, in my opinion, more entertaining as a result.

The special effects are spotty, even though they won an Academy Award (the film also won for Best Art Direction). The scenes where things become small or big are pretty woeful, especially by today's computer-generated standards. In contrast, once the Proteus is cruising through the circulatory system, Fantastic Voyage still looks pretty impressive. But then, the 20th Century-Fox special effects team, led by L.B. Abbott, had a pretty good handle on submarine scenes, having working on the film and TV versions of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

The cast has been called wooden, but actually it's quite servicable. Boyd makes a good no-nonsense hero, Donald Pleasance is quite fun, and Arthur Kennedy delivers the film's worst dialogue with sincerity. The only cast member that seems out of place is Raquel Welch. At that point in her career, one suspects she was cast for her looks, but, ironically, she's covered in a non-flattering full body suit for almost the entire film.

Acclaimed science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote a novelization based on the screenplay. The ending in Asimov's book is slightly different and accounts for a scientific discrepancy in the film version. Asimov also penned a sequel called Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain. Over the years, numerous directors, such as James Cameron, have considered producing a big budget remake. Joe Dante's 1987 film Innerspace, starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, is a lighthearted variation. It also won an Oscar for special effects.

7 comments:

  1. Very nice write-up on this one, Rick. I can't pass this movie up whenver it is on, and I can't say it's because it's great. A little cheesy, but really good -- does that make sense? It does to me. I had 2 other things that always tickle me in this movie. Edmond O'Brien as the Army brass always putting tons of sugar in his coffee just struck me funny. But the funniest thing to me was the miniature radar dishes around the guys's head, sweeping back and forth. In my family all somebody has to do is put their hands by their head and do that movement and we all know what it means. That poor guy didn't have much of a part, did he? Just a fun movie to watch!

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  2. FANTASTIC VOYAGE displays all the properties that make the science fiction genre so wonderful: seemingly impossible technology, colorfully-named organizations to handle such technology, and, as you described it, "outlandish" plots! It's always so fun to sit back and lose yourself in the special effects, even if they're subpar. This film is especially enjoyable because it's just like being in a movie theatre. The characters are so small, inside this massive brain, like a tiny audience in front of an enormous screen. And I personally believe that Donald Pleasance can make any movie watchable, as he proved with the countless HALLOWEEN sequels. A thoughtful and loving review, Rick, and a superb way to begin to voyage into this month's Science Fiction Film Festival!

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  3. Raquel Welch.....

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  4. Rick, you did a stellar job profiling a clever sci fi pic! The idea of making a crew of medical specialists so small so that they would be able travel through a person's body was a fascinating premise. As a person who has worked in healthcare I was always concerned about the lack of infection control but was glad to see that parts of the body try to attack the crew as an unwanted foreign substance.

    Intriguing movie and extraordinary review, Rick!

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  5. Rick, I enjoyed this Sifi movie with it's wonderful/cheesy moments of suspense while the ship and its crew are threatened by white corpuscles and antibodies … I also thought the music nicely complements the adventure on screen with the sound of blood rushing through arteries. And... of course you can not have a Sifi movie without a good sabotage… Thank you for your Awesome review!

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  6. @ ClassicBecky: Yes, even back in 1966, that tracking unit with all those teeny-tiny radar dishes bobbing back and forth looked silly. What were the art directors thinking?

    BTW, did anyone notice that CMDF’s Precision Handling Device was built on the base of a McAllister camera dolly?

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  7. Scot, thanks for the interesting trivia on the camera dolly. As for the Art Direction, well, it won an Oscar!

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