Innerspace causes me to seriously wonder whether there is anything productive in the Steven Spielberg/Joe Dante partnership beyond the one-off wonder of Gremlins (1984) – a film that is, after all, as much anti-Spielberg as it is summarising of his art and craft. Dante seems now very much the loser, the subordinate, in this relation. Innerspace is a bit of sad mess – as far from the radical, cheeky, innovative potential of Dante’s filmmaking as can be imagined.
After Gremlins, Dante spoke of his wish to go further into the “weird”, unconventional aspects of film fantasy (Prevue, no. 60, July-Aug ’85). Dante aficionados know precisely what brand of weird he’s talking about: early Mad magazine, the Warner Bros cartoons of Tex Avery or Chuck Jones, unrestrained Jerry Lewis. Innerpsace held out the delicious promise of being the ultimate Dante inferno: a no-holds barred live-action cartoon about the human body both inside and out, and the transgression of its limits.
So much for high hopes. Innerspace takes over the old Fantastic Voyage (1966) premise of one person in a spacecraft, Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid), miniaturised inside another person, Jack Putter (Martin Short). Making sense of even the basic fictional premise beyond this point poses considerable problems. It leaps all over the place, trying out one possible Tuck-Jack relation and then another.
For the most part, it’s not a film about the body at all – except for one freakish, delirious moment of corporeal transformation – but more simply one about conscience, with Tuck acting as Jack’s Ego or Id (hey, don’t look at my girlfriend like that!). Whenever the plot requires it, however, Tuck is suddenly able to completely program and manipulate Jack’s body (pumping the adrenalin level on his computer board!).
Throughout, Innerspace goes to strenuous lengths – and here one must surely suspect the hand of Spielberg – to avoid anything even slightly icky, slimy, anal or erotic inside the landscape of the human body: gastric acid is employed as the most sanitised backdrop of abjection for the big, action scene.
As sometimes happens in Dante, attempts at conventional character pathos creak badly (his heart rarely seems to be in it, and the ironic distance necessary doesn’t always manage to get installed) – and this is a film which starts on an interminable attempt to set up Tuck’s rough-but-solid hero status along with the general emotional co-ordinates of the story (fidelity, trust, integrity, self-discovery, compromise …). None of this, I’d like to say, is Dante’s business – and he probably knows it.
The other big moment of the film – when Tuck enters the body of his girlfriend, Lydia (Meg Ryan), via the transitional passage of Jack’s mouth and discovers there the foetus of his yet-unborn child – would be, if heartfelt, extraordinary; Dante seems to throw it away out of acute embarrassment, leaving half the audience scratching its collective head as to what just actually happened.
Innerspace is full of painfully marginal notations for the film Dante obviously craved to make: a laboratory rabbit named Bugs; a cameo by Chuck Jones; an elaborate but wasted gag involving villains reduced to pigmy size. He eventually settles for a few nice touches that are more Frank Tashlin than Tex Avery, such as the penultimate moment when Jack closes three sub-plots in seven words.
But these jokes amount to cold comfort. Maybe Dante needs to get back together with some former colleagues: Roger Corman, John Sayles, Allan Arkush …
© Adrian Martin November 1987