Fantastic Voyage

(Richard Fleischer, USA, 1966)


In the film I’ve just made, Fantastic Voyage, I worked for months in order to obtain totally unprecedented plastic effects. With my favourite cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo, we aimed to suppress the sets and replace them with lighting. Thanks to transparent materials and the careful placement of light play, we have achieved astonishing results. We have given life to an imaginary décor, thanks to the distribution of zones of shadow and various colours. And because – for once in a science fiction film – the script is built on an adult premise, and not some stupid story for abnormal children, I believe that people will be very interested.

         Richard Fleischer interviewed by “B.T.”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 186 (January 1967)


In the judgement eventually pronounced by Bertrand Tavernier (the above interviewer, I presume) and Jean-Pierre Coursodon in their classic reference book Fifty Years of American Cinema, Fantastic Voyage does not come out too well: it “can be rescued, at a pinch” from his run of failed, big-budget projects at Fox in the latter half of the 1960s, although it is:


… well below what it could have been: stereotyped characters, non-existent direction of actors (with Stephen Boyd as hero, we could be in Flash Gordon), strictly functional dialogue (the pseudo-technical jargon is intercut here and there with philosophic platitudes: Arthur Kennedy paraphrases Pascal and attempts to change a colleague’s scepticism concerning the miracle of life, when the scene is fortunately interrupted by an alert). As to its sets and special effects, highly praised at the time, they today seem rather rudimentary, even ridiculous (Raquel Welch attacked by antibodies that mistake her for a microbe).


What neither Fleischer nor his critics spell out, in these accounts, is the “adult premise” of the tale: a team of scientists (and one government security agent) are miniaturised in a top secret, underground, American military facility, in order to enter the body of a friendly Russian defector whose brain has been damaged in a surprise attack (the subject of a surreal, wordless opening sequence). The crew, in their submarine-cum-spaceship vessel, travel along various passageways of this body (arteries, the heart, an ear canal) in order to get to the brain clot and laser it away. However – in an intrigue reminiscent of the various versions of The Thing – there is a traitor on board, and some little mystery concerning the identity of this cad, who finally meets a gruesome comeuppance due to the body’s defence mechanisms. As in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and many similar Jules Verne-style “adventure into strange landscape” tales, there is initial debate as to whether a woman should be allowed to participate in the voyage. She does. Proto-feminism?


I’ve viewed Fantastic Voyage three times in my life: in 1966 (when I was 6 years old) on the big screen at a long-ago torn-down suburban Melbourne cinema; then around 1995 on VHS video; and again now in 2019 in a decent DVD edition that does justice to the visual effects of which Fleischer was rightly proud. The film is part of my inner, imaginary autobiography: these sublime vistas set inside the human body (“innerspace”, the magic word picked up by Joe Dante two decades later)  filled the dreams of my childhood; and my nightmares, especially, were stoked by those moments of terror when characters are attacked – to the point of being devoured – by the various floating, impersonal, but fiercely trouble-shooting antibodies, enzymes, corpuscles, or whatever the heck they are. (Watching the film as a kid with little to no knowledge of human anatomy only increased its wonder-quotient a hundred fold.) The “universe inside yourself” is a potent fantasy for any child, and one that haunts many film artists (such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg) well into their mature years. I wonder how many of them saw Fantastic Voyage at an impressionable age?


There are certainly weak, functional or indifferent elements in the script (by Harry Kleiner, who collaborated with terrific directors from Otto Preminger in the ‘40s to Walter Hill in the ‘80s) – elements that turned me off the film in my second, VHS glimpse of the mid ‘90s. The whodunit intrigue is pretty transparent (Donald Pleasance as the eternal, twitchy villain – his panic attack scene here is memorable). There is something a bit ridiculous in the hero (Boyd) being hurled onto a vessel he’s never seen before and is untrained to run, and then being ordered to work equipment, open vents, etc. 


There’s a laboured build-up to a strong spectacle – the crashing to the floor of a pair of scissors as magnified aurally in the ear cavity – via references to spilt coffee, sugar, etc in the control rooms where Edmund O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell prowl and declaim monologues. If you look at the film on a lo-hi format, the visual effects inevitably look much less impressive, more papier-mâché, than they actually are – but once you get past the hump of any realism, the abstract light, colour and transparency effects of which Fleischer boasted take hold of the imagination.


Like any movie of an SF orientation, Fantastic Voyage offers a fascinating case study – almost beyond itself – concerning which of its “futuristic” speculations were correct, and which others were wildly off-the-mark. (Not even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey can entirely pass this test, as time and legions of nit-picky nerds have proven.) The film exploits an ambiguity typical of the genre: it’s not really set “tomorrow”, because all this high-tech work has been kept secret, underground. So we get miniaturisation, lasers, some robotics (all the delicate work – like surgical injection and carrying mini-people in a teardrop on a glass slide – is carried out nervously by hand, nonetheless).


But one thing that pops out today is that computer technology – and particularly everything to do with digital screens – is almost completely absent in this projected other-world: large or small maps (Pleasance, on board, co-ordinates several dozen of them, rolled up in their cubby holes) and overhead projectors still rule, both in boardroom briefings and on the vessel itself! (I speak as probably one of the last university lecturers on Planet Earth to resolutely go on using clunky, old, handwritten transparent sheets in overhead projection until 2010, when those machines were finally carted off to the tip.)


I like Fantastic Voyage again, in 2019; I’ve reunited with an old friend, after a period of disenchantment. It’s magical. It connects me to my childhood, but that’s not the only thing I appreciate about it. Like virtually every Fleischer film, it has a solid overall construction, a real sense of journey-adventure, and wonderful pictorial or “plastic” visions. It’s still potent enough to miniaturise itself and inch its way along the brain canals and into my dreams.


Note: An adjacent work to this review, the audiovisual essay I made with Cristina Álvarez López, Once Upon a Screen: Journey to the Centre (2019), goes deeper into the viewing and recollection of another related, formative movie of my childhood: Journey to the Center of the Earth. It can be viewed at: https://filmkrant.nl/video/thinking-machine-31-english/

© Adrian Martin 12 August 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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