Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Cardboard Science: 20,000 leagues under the skin


Slow (and surprisingly dumb for a movie as pompous as this one often is), it nevertheless absolutely lives up to that title, even fifty years after the fact.

Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Otto Klement, Jerome Bixby, and Harry Kleiner
With Stephen Boyd (Grant), Arthur Kennedy (Dr. Peter Duval), Raquel Welch (Cora Peterson), William Redfield (Capt. Bill Owens), Edmond O'Brien (Gen. Carter), Arthur O'Donnell (Col. Reid), and Donald Pleasence (Dr. Michaels)

Spoiler alert: high

It is one of the sci-fi high concepts of the midcentury, or any century, and I think that's why I'll probably never not find myself shocked that 1966's Fantastic Voyage—the first film to turn the resizing subgenre of science fiction toward the beckoning spectacle of the human body itself—is also pretty much the last and only major motion picture to actually take that high concept seriously.  It doesn't seem possible, but it's true: the closest it ever got to a full-scale theatrical successor was Dante's Innerspace (fully 21 years down the line), and nobody has ever tried to claim with a straight face that Innerspace is serious.

But despite attracting no imitators to keep its flame alive, Voyage has managed to burrow itself deep down into our pop cultural soul anyway; it's one of those movies that even if you haven't watched it, you think you have, and you may as well have, because you know everything about it already.  So if I had to look for reasons why it was never truly remade, or ripped off in any respectable way, one big reason would be that the narrative and visual possibilities of a team of shrunken people thrown into a full-sized human's body are perhaps not quite as infinite as Voyage's occasionally-overheated dialogue would have you believe, and Voyage has already exhausted most of the obvious ones after 100 minutes spent pursuing the one basic plot that the premise easily allows, namely a race against time to save a patient who cannot be healed by conventional means.  The other reason would be that any voyage this fantastic is, by default, a damned expensive undertaking, and Voyage was marketed in the lead-up to its premiere as "the most expensive science fiction film ever made."  At an authorized budget of $5 million that ballooned to six, I believe that, as far as '66 goes, they weren't lying; and that money definitely shows up on the screen.

Again, as far as '66 goes.

Either way, if you take those two things together, what you get is an iconic film that's become more iconic through winking and not-so-winking references in another medium entirely, where this kind of vision doesn't cost 45 million now-bucks.  Thus the prime vector through which anybody my age has ever become familiar with the crazy notion behind this fifty year old film has always been its inevitable presence in at least one episode of what seems like every last sci-fantasy cartoon series ever made (including, obviously, the Filmation series based directly on the film).  Voyage gets its due in everything from Archer ("Drastic Voyage," not even an "homage," but almost literally just a parody version of the film, albeit an excellent one) to The Venture Bros. ("The Diving Bell vs. the Butter-Glider," and given it's The freakin' Venture Bros. the most amazing thing is it took till season 4 to get there) to Futurama ("Parasites Lost," a clever mixed-trope take on the subject, that expands the premise's reach deep into the poo zones) to Libertarian Edgelord Futurama a.k.a. What If Bender and Professor Farnsworth Were the Same Character? a.k.a. Rick and Morty ("Anatomy Park," a pretty loose riff, and quite clever in its own right) to at least three episodes of The Magic Schoolbus, because man, that show loved making children feel gross about their disgusting mortal coils.  Meanwhile, if there's not an episode of The Muppet Babies that uses actual footage from the film, I'd be very surprised.

Guillermo del Toro—following on in James Cameron's footsteps after Cameron realized that if he could spend half a billion on anything he wanted he could spend it on a genuine passion project, hence Avatar—promises his remake really is happening this time, which he has done once a year or so for a while now, so we'll see.  But, somewhat oddly and perhaps even despite myself (because if you know me, you know I'm the very center of the target demographic for "eye-blasting CGI spectacle made with so much money it could fix Flint seven times over"), I'm almost happy that this Voyage has not so far been repeated, either by a remake or by a ripoff.  That means it gets to exist in a vacuum, glittering like a little almost-perfect object, flawlessly representing what the effects and aesthetics of its own time could produce when put totally balls to the wall.

Maybe that's a counterintuitive way to put it (if you've ever seen the film you know what I'm talking about), but I think it gets to the point: your first and your last impression of Fantastic Voyage is that it is made in a way that movies simply are not made anymore, even movies that want to doll themselves up with mid-60s science optimism for flavor.  Now, I don't mean the vintage effects or the transparent sexism; and while it has something to do with the overall effect, I don't exactly mean its combination of a daffy sci-fi idea with an admirably serious attitude.  Rather, I mean the actual way Voyage is put together: stately.  Stately as fuck, in fact, almost but not quite to a fault.

Just the shrinking sequence, by itself, is easily a solid five minutes long, involving slow precision machinery and three distinct phases which are each announced in portentous tones as they begin, and which invites you to say aloud, right there while you're watching it, "hey, wait a minute, that sub's way too big to fit into an artery, this movie is outright contemptuous," before slowly revealing an oversized vial of saline that will be shrunk with the half-miniaturized ship inside it, and so demonstrating that this movie has thought about its premise (or this part of it, at least) really, really hard.  And that's not even how it begins!  It begins with a reasonably involved and completely dialogue-free prologue about the spies who've done their best to spirit one Dr. Benes out of the Eastern Bloc, though the scientist has so far only gotten a nasty head injury and resulting cerebral blood clot out of the deal, thereby motivating the plot—a plot which is then interrupted by a marvelous, jittery opening credits sequence with optically-printed literal ticking clocks seen over a montage of what amounts to pornography for people who get off on disconnected images of medical technology.  It gets the blood up just enough to get you through the next ten minutes or so, which turn out to be ten minutes spent on people explaining to one of those spies, Grant, everything that will happen in the ten minutes after that.

For a movie about a fake procedure, Voyage is radically devoted to being a procedural, and while the action and pace eventually pick up, the  deliberate, borderline-contemplative mood of it all is very nearly imperturbable.  But that's what I think I love about Voyage the most, the way it plays like a psychedelic medical reality show in a world with absurd, magical technology.  Or, if it's not that, then what I love the most is the way it makes itself so beautiful and elegant in the process, possessing not just an expert eye for pleasurable geometry in its super-scientific devices, but the environments they exist in, too.  There are premonitions of 2001: A Space Odyssey here, and Voyage is one of the clearest transitional fossils between the goofy concept-driven sci-fi of the 50s and the magisterial kind of science-inflected visual art that would persist here and there (and cater, less and less accidentally, to tripping hippies), right up until Star Wars came along and changed the game for everybody.  Voyage was art directed by Dale Hennessy and Jack Martin Smith (it was directed-directed by the unsung auteur, Richard Fleischer, doing great credit to himself), and there's a genuine argument to be made that the prettiest spectacle it offers isn't even the inside of a human body, but the enormous modernist hive of super-scientists and military men that the operation takes place in, swarming with the Army's fun little military-grade golf carts, and decorated with giant-sized wall-charts of Benes' body which extras glower thoughtfully at with grave expressions.  (Charts are a major motif in this movie, in fact, giving it the added dissonance of combining the most miraculous technology of an imagined future with information management systems that have only barely advanced since World War II.)  And every fussed-over set and every shot of the compound is completely permeated with a deep sense of competence, and of benevolence, of the kind that you would never, ever be allowed to feel in any movie made in 2018, because that's just not who we are anymore, not even in our dreams.

Well, we've taken care of most of the plot already, though Voyage adds a few  more wrinkles.  So: our man Grant joins the crew of the submersible Proteus—pilot Capt. Owens, laser-wielding microsurgeon Dr. Duval, Duval's assistant/the girl Nora Peterson, and the installation's supervising medical officer Dr. Michaels—and they are plunged into Benes, where they face great difficulties as they pass through a arteriovenous fistula and get lost in the wilds of Benes' body, which poses some serious danger given that once their set time-limit has elapsed—60 minutes, and not one second more (and yeah, that's convenient)—their ship and their bodies shall return rapidly to normal size, and hopefully not while they're still inside Benes'.  Making matters worse, there's a whiff of sabotage about the whole operation—intimations of an enemy mole—and while Grant is told that the chief suspect is Dr. Duval, Dr. Michaels is played by Donald Pleasence, so take one wild guess as to how this actually works out.

The remainder of the film is essentially the real-time exploration of the wonders and obstacles they encounter on their way to rescue Benes' brain, and it's hard to say anything bad about any of it, given the limitations of the technology at the time (for a 1966 film, the compositing is extraordinarily good), though it's also fair to say that the very first shock of the Proteus being surrounded by giant red corpuscles is the best card Voyage has to play.  Still: nothing in Benes' body looks uncool, even if it often looks incredibly inaccurate (the heart being rendered in a frankly bizarre fashion, as a densely elaborate latticework of fibers), and also if it occasionally just looks like the kind of alien cave set Gene Roddenberry wished he could've afforded for Star Trek (the lungs being particularly stagebound).  But it entertains and mesmerizes regardless, as a fantasia of a body if nothing else—the webby neuronal network of Benes' brain, shimmering with Benes' thoughts, is a genuine delight—and Voyage treats the human interior with a modicum of respect regardless, not usually forgetting that the inside is full of liquid, and only forgetting that it isn't full of lights because it has other priorities.

It is not a film to be enjoyed on the basis of its characters, of course, not even pontificating science hero Duval, and certainly not Stephen Boyd's Grant, who is almost explicitly present to be the easy-to-look-at leading man who needs to have things explained to him.  It is, however, sometimes surprisingly funny—the Army officers on the outside get some legitimately weird moments and are arguably better-characterized than the leads—but the only performer making any real impression is Pleasence, who actually gets a trait and a history, and who also has the most enjoyable things to say as a double-agent whose genuinely-convincing cover is to be a cowardly jerk about the whole situation, and to sandbag the more mystical pronouncements of his honorable medical counterpart by grumbling out lines like, "Mhm, let me know when we pass the soul."

It's a testament to Pleasence's comfort in such a B-movie role (irrespective of the actual budget) that he can develop even this much character, because part of the "modicum of respect" Voyage has for its scenario is that its costuming, developed in reference to the aqueous interior of the body, is astonishingly willing to visually anonymize its characters beyond any other movie I can name off hand—it's one more thing you'd never see in our present-day world, where no superhero can keep their mask on for even two fucking minutes, and naturally it's one more thing that I really adore about this film—though, by corollary, the downside of it is that Raquel Welch, not necessarily expected to do much in any movie, has almost literally nothing to do in this one, and since Voyage can't find many ways to properly objectify her, it simply doesn't have much use for her at all beyond a flirtation scene with Boyd early on that's perfectly cute but goes directly into the void afterwards (and, you'll note, exists mostly to explain to Grant/us the operation of the laser).  Memory and marketing betray you if you recall Voyage as one of Welch's sexy roles.  Amusingly, she puts more clothes on as the movie proceeds, donning one more of Voyage's uniform white wetsuits that pretty much obliterate all but the most secondary of its cast's sexual characteristics (I mean, she is Raquel Welch), to the extent that during the sequence where they disembark from the Proteus feet-first via an underside hatch, I sat myself forward to get a nice leer in at what turned out to be Donald Pleasence's ass.

I have no particular regrets.

Altogether, Fantastic Voyage is a film whose time has definitively passed, and I make no claims as to whether the average viewer now could find it anything less than boring.  I don't even say that as a slam on modern audiences: it is kind of objectively boring, unless you have a fondness for pre-Trumbull effects work at its grandest, DeLuxe Eastmancolor at its most oversaturated, and dumbassed super-science spectacle at its most self-important and glacial.  Or, perhaps, a fetish for pin-up girls and/or bald Englishmen in wetsuits.  But as I have most of those things, I enjoy the hell out of it; and, even at its most boring, and despite some very blatant conceptual weaknesses (see the addendum), it remains one hypnotizing piece of proto-blockbuster cinema.

Score:  9/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Other than the arteries and veins, maybe, there is probably not one single visual in Voyage that accords with real biology, but most of my objections have already been listed above.
  • So the biggest problem about Voyage is that by the 90-minute mark it has, within the confines of its anatomically-inaccurate spectacle anyway, spent its entire runtime being surprisingly rigorous about its actual premise, that is, the ticking clock scenario and the stakes for Benes and his healers if the Proteus doesn't make it out in time.  Then, in the last ten, Voyage enthusiastically flushes this away—as Isaac Asimov pissily observed when asked to write the novelization—when they leave the Proteus sub inside Benes' fucking body.  Alongside Michaels' body, in fact, which has been awesomely eaten from the chin up by one of Benes' white blood cells.  Okay, it was arguably worth it.  But I'm with Asimov on this one, and it definitely cost Voyage that last crucial point.  And what about the twenty gallons of saline solution?  Well, apropos of nothing, the ending of Archer's "Drastic Voyage" is really pretty great.
  • Asimov's novelization reportedly takes great pains to try to make the science plausible.  I respect that, I really do, but when it comes to the resizing subgenre of SF, I really do have to wonder why anybody would bother.  I mean, we all know about the square-cube problem, and we all question how you breathe with miniaturized atoms in your lungs, but there's an infinity of issues, really.  Here's one more: if you shrank your eyes, and the photoreceptor cells within them, you would be blind.  So: let's not bother.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • While Welch's well-attested sensual appeal plays no obvious role in the film, especially under an awful mid-60s hairdo that looks like a plastic helmet, we do get an uncomfortable-looking scene where the actress, covered by some twine pretending to be an antibody, is viciously groped by the entire miniaturized cast in an attempt to tear it off, and I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't bear much skin in this movie because a square meter of it was covered in bruises.
  • Also, this ad for the movie.  Oh-kay, 20th Century Fox, whatever you say!
I guess the mid-60s were full of both sexism and false advertising.
  • In one of Voyage's few avowed whimsies, one military officer refrains from smashing an intruding ant, and his colleague says to him, "You'll wind up a Hindu.  They respect all forms of life, however small."  I dunno, it seems like a compliment, but you gotta narrow your eyes at it, and I'm pretty sure that's Jains, anyway.  Fun line read, though.
  • Um, did I not mention the part where Donald Pleasence's head gets eaten by a phagocyte?
  • Seriously, the entire film is ensconced in sensawunda: from the pageantlike procession of the shrinking sequence to the twinkling of Benes' neurons, this movie, popular with many at the time, was undoubtedly extremely popular indeed amongst one certain segment of the population back in 1966.


  1. I honestly didn't know the director behind Amityville 3-D had such a far-ranging career! Though, truth be told, if I had to watch another movie by ANY Amityville director, it'd be him, so good on Mr. Fleischer.

    1. Dude did a lot of stuff over his forty years in the business. I certainly was not on purpose looking to continue my exploration of the filmography of the man who did Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, but here we are.