Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Films of 1966: Fantastic Voyage

"Maybe the philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity; between outer and inner space..." 

-Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy) ponders the miracle of life in Fantastic Voyage.

This memorable Richard Fleischer effort was the special effects spectacular of 1966; an imaginative, big budget (6.5. million dollar...), award-winning science fiction adventure. If you grew up in the late 1960s or 1970s, Fantastic Voyage was also likely one of your favorite genre movies; one filled with action, danger and special effects spectacle the likes of which you had never conceived.

This well-regarded genre film escorts the audience inside the HQ of the CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces), an American military-intelligence agency that has developed the ability to shrink down to microscopic levels everything from people and equipment to large-scale vehicles. The problem with this technique is that the miniaturization process becomes unstable after a mere sixty minutes, and all shrunken persons or objects then return to normal size.

Only one scientist -- a Soviet named Jan Benes -- knows the answer to this riddle. Unfortunately, he's been badly wounded during his defection to the West. An inoperable brain injury threatens his life and all of his advanced knowledge.

CMDF doctors quickly realize that the only way to clear a large blood clot from the scientist's brain is to arrange a "little trip." Specifically, a nuclear submarine named Proteus (model U91035) and a team of medical personnel are to be miniaturized and injected into the dying man's blood-stream. The strategy is to travel by artery to the brain clot, slice open the dangerous occlusion with experimental laser beam, and wait for removal at the base of the neck. 

And all this must occur in just sixty minutes.

The mission doesn't quite turn out that way. Security agent Grant (Stephen Boyd), neuro-surgeon Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), his beautiful assistant Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), sub Captain Owens (William Redfield) and team leader, Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence) encounter an array of unexpected and wild dangers on their fantastic voyage.

A whirlpool at an artery branch shunts the Proteus into the veins, forcing a dangerous journey directly through the human heart (which is stopped for sixty seconds to permit transit). Then, the Proteus's air supply mysteriously fails, requiring a pit-stop in the lungs, where the oxygenation process is observed and then exploited. A trip through the inner ear is equally dangerous, because any vibration inside the operating theatre could rattle the ship and crew into pieces.

Before the mission ends, the surgical laser is damaged (sabotaged?) and jury rigged, and an enemy agent is found among the crew. 

Take a look at the cast members, and then take a good guess at who the saboteur might be. 

Finally, a swarm of puffy, jelly-fish like white corpuscles attack the Proteus, crushing the marvelous high-tech sub completely. After a successful operation to remove the clot (conducted in four minutes, no less...), the mission survivors evacuate through Benes' tear ducts...just in the nick of time. Their "full reduction" reverses and they are restored to normal dimensions as the end credits roll.

I've always admired and enjoyed Fantastic Voyage, but watching it again in 2015 with my son Joel, it is not difficult for the objective viewer to discern some of the film's more notable shortcomings.

All the characters are two-dimensional and deadly dull, their dialogue stiff and uninteresting. The film also wastes an inordinate amount of valuable screen time on military brass arguing amongst itself and barking orders at subordinates, who dutifully carry these technical instructions out in mission-control-style environs.

Most troublesome, it takes the movie nearly a full thirty minutes to get to the miniaturization process and the actual impossible mission, so the movie starts out at a snail's pace. The pace does pick up, but some won't have the patience to stick with the film.

Still, I would have to say that all of these drawbacks are largely immaterial, given the movie's strengths.  The premise would have to be counted key among those. Movies often exist for the express purpose of revealing to us worlds and vistas we've never imagined or seen before. On that criteria alone, the wacky miniaturization plot of Fantastic Voyage succeeds magnificently. It's the doorway to a world of awesome visual delights and some great 1960s-era effects.

Some of the amazing and jaw-dropping sights you'll see in Fantastic Voyage include: a nuclear submarine submerging inside the choppy waters of a hypodermic needle; a roller coaster ride through that needle into human flesh; a passage through a school of globular red blood cells; a flight through a human heart; a close-up view of the oxygenation process, an exchange of gases that is one of the "miracles of the universe;" and even a rendering of a "blazing" single thought, as Benes' sparkling synapses fire all about the rocketing Proteus.

My two favorite images, however, occur late in the film. There's a terrifying moment wherein a white corpuscle descends on the dorsal dome of the Proteus, where Captain Michaels (Pleasence) has become trapped following a crash. The corpuscle crushes the glass of the dome, and proceeds to envelope Michaels' (screaming) head before our eyes. That fatal moment -- which Pleasence really sells -- has haunted me since I was a kid. Imagine being eaten, head-first, by a giant cell.

And secondly, I love the shot that finds the mission survivors swimming wildly in a single tear drop -- to them the size of a lake -- after evacuating the body through the corner of the eyeball. I remember I once owned the Fantastic Voyage comic-book too (long gone, alas...), and this image really resonated with me both in print and on screen. The kid in me has also nurtured a long fondness for that high-tech submarine, the Proteus ("quite a canoe," as one character describes it...). I always wished there had been a model kit of that ship in the 1970s.

As a dazzling visual travelogue into inner space, a journey into a contained universe all its own, Fantastic Voyage remains an involving cinematic experience. I also detect now a thematic leitmotif I missed as a kid: an early debate about intelligent design vs. evolution. Dr. Duval (the good guy...) sees the oxygenation process as a sure sign of a "Creator's" hand, while the godless communist agent, Michaels, views it as nothing more than evolution.

As you can guess, the movie falls philosophically on the side of intelligent design. Message: do not tamper in God's domain.

So Fantastic Voyage is a nostalgic favorite that features some imaginative sets and more than a handful of grand physical effects. It also generate a fair degree of tension in the final act, especially during the hair-raising "absolute silence" scene involving the journey through the inner ear. I love the film and was glad to see that Joel enjoyed it, though I could tell that the first act tried his 9-year old patience.


  1. One of those classics that seemed to hit the TV of my youth once a month. Way ahead of it's time. With the talk of nano machines, will talk of nano humans be far behind?

  2. I resisted this film recently too, and I had the same experience. The set up really takes it's time, more time than it really needs to. But once the voyage actually begins, it is a fun and visually dynamic movie. That final scene with Pleasance really stayed with me too. His horror is so complete, and as a kid I could hardly watch as he was absorbed into that thing. Really great stuff. I'm glad Joel enjoyed it. :)

  3. My recent rewatch opened my eyes to how sexist it is ("A woman on the vessel! Why she's bound to girl everything up!" - a General pretty much says this) and how borderline harassment some of the hero's dialogue with Raquel is. It's easy to dismiss as "That was the time" but many genre classics manage to reflect their times without making one cringe (The Thing, It Came From Beneath the Sea, etc.). Of course, that General's attitude is still common ("Women in the military? Why they'll girl everything up!" - pretty sure I heard that on CNN last week.

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