Fifty years ago movie audiences sat down in darkened theaters to witness a film that would take them to ‘where no one has ever been before’.
They learned from the intriguing title card that ‘No eye-witness has actually seen what you are about to see. During an era where going to the moon would soon be upon us and where the most incredible things are happening all around us, someday, perhaps tomorrow, the fantastic events you are about to see can and will take place’.
What a build up from an opening title card! Folks, we’re about to take a FANTASTIC VOYAGE!
The place that was so trumped up in that title card was of course the human body. And we’re not talking about Raquel Welch’s bodacious bod to ogle at (that was a bonus), but something far more intricate and otherworldly. We’re going to shrink down a team of doctors to microscopic size and go along with them to explore the inside of a human body.
This isn’t some boring old biology film your teacher would show you in school, but an unbelievable adventure the likes of which has never been seen before.
Fantastic Voyage premiered in August 1966 and while today the film might not seem as revolutionary as that opening card trumpeted to audience fifty years ago, it continues to hold up as an entertaining, unique sci-fi adventure.
So the setup is this – The U.S. and Soviet Union have made a scientific breakthrough – they have figured out how to miniaturize matter to any size. The catch is the miniaturization can only be for a limited time, after which the mater will grow back to normal size.
However, a brilliant Russian scientist who is working for the U.S. has cracked the technology and now is the only one who holds the key to perfecting miniaturization. On his way to reveal this vital information to the U.S government the other side attempts an assassination on him. He survives but is left in a coma with a blood clot in his brain that will eventually kill him if not taken care of.
The only way to save him is to have a team of doctors board a high-tech submarine, shrink it and them down to microscopic size, inject them into his body whereupon they can make their way to his internal injury and repair it. But they only have that limited time to accomplish their mission, in this case exactly one hour, before they grow back to normal size.
On top of navigating blood vessels, veins and into the unknown there’s another hitch, there’s suspicion there’s a traitor onboard who wants to make sure the mission fails and is aiming to kill the injured scientist by surgical assassination. There is a lot to worry about.
Director Richard Fletcher tries to make all this totally believable from the outset. Agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd) is brought in and drops into this huge underground government facility. Grant begins to get the rundown of the situation by General Carter played by the always reliable Edmond O’Brien.
This place looks huge with dozens of extras walking around and golf carts being used to traverse the miles of hallways leading to rooms with – well who knows what cool stuff is being hidden away here! It’s the type of place you could imagine where they would take Indiana Jones’ ark and do some major experimenting with.
This sequence always impressed me when I was little. I always wondered where they shot this stuff. My suspicion was it was some kind of sports stadium. The main tipoff was in the background it looked like those rolling gates over closed concession stands. Years later I was happy to be proved right when I learned all the massive secretive CMDF facility (that’s the Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces) was in fact the Los Angles Sports Arena. They don’t open the hot dog stands until lunch hour I guess.
We meet our team of doctors who are going on this voyage – Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance), Dr. Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy), his assistant Cora Petersen (Raquel Welch) and ship captain Bill Owens (William Redfield).
Boyd is reluctantly recruited for this mission as security. Instructed to take orders from Dr. Michaels he’s there to make sure nothing goes wrong. General Carter suspects Dr. Duval can’t be trusted and instead of saving the scientist’s life will sabotage the mission and try to ensure the scientists death. Grant will have to keep his eyes open and look for any funny business happening.
There’s an immediate argument between Colonel Reid (Arthur O’Connel) and Dr. Duval about taking Cora along on this mission. “A woman has no place on a mission like this!” Reid screams. Fortunately for audiences with Y chromosomes the presence of Miss Welch is agreed upon on this adventure. Whew! Plus, her fortunate presence here allows her to be in one of the best films in her career.
There’s detailed buildup with maps, diagrams and x-rays so we know what exactly the plan is. We see the lay of the land – or more precisely the outline of the comatose scientist. The team goes over the route the ship is going to take and the dangers that they’re going to avoid.
The film sets up how the control room will track the ship, the communication systems, the whole thing. Later on when things go wrong and some improvisation needs to happen we understand why they must be made, the dangers they’re heading into and the solutions they come up with. Naturally there’s some hiccups along the way. Not literal hiccups by the comatose scientists, but problems….eh you know what I mean.
We’re also reminded of that blasted time limit they’re facing. After one hour of miniaturization the ship and the crew will gradually start to grow back to normal size. If they’re still inside the scientists body and start to get bigger his immune system will view them as a threat. Death by antibodies!
We have a big clock in the operating room looming over everything constantly reminding us that time is running out. Throughout the movie we see the numbers gradually click down to zero. It might look hokey, but it works to create tension.
Fleischer really takes his time setting up the shrinking procedure. The boarding of the ship Proteus and the process of miniaturizing it becomes this extended sequence. We learn about all the little things on the ship that will come in play later before everyone straps themselves in to get shrunk.
I always liked how they don’t plainly explain the shrinking procedure phases. They shrink the ship partially down to size and drop them into a big syringe filled with water – at least it’s some kind of liquid. The Proteus sinks down into it like a submarine, then they shrink the whole big syringe and the ship completely down to the size needed. There’s a little discovery for the audience as they get to figure that part out themselves and realize – oh that’s how they’re going to do it. I’m going to guess that syringe went back to its original giant size an hour later.
The setup to the story is as important as the voyage. They weren’t worried about spending as much time as they do getting us to the edge of our seats, making sure we’re familiar with all the rules and tools and getting us anxious for this voyage they’re about to take.
Once they’re injected into the scientist the fun begins. Immediately we’re taken to a funky, psychedelic landscape. The inside of the body resembles a lava lamp gone wild. There’s no doubt if this were made today the interpretation of the inside of a body would look mighty different.
Some of the effects naturally look dated today. Come on, this was fifty years ago. There’s animated electrical charges, scruffy looking laser beams and awkward gimbal movement. We get dodgy rear-screen projections, rough matte lines, awkward slo-mo and wire work. I’m making it sound like a real mess, but the majority of it holds up fairly well. The miniatures and sets still look cool and it’s all so much fun.
One very hokey detail I always liked was the set of mini-radars they set up around the comatose scientist to track the ship inside him. It just looks so childish and simple I can’ help but love it.
The movie tries hard to make a real connection between the Proteus and the outside world. One terrific scene that ties together the miniature crew and the operating room is when they’re forced to travel through the ear canal. The room has to remain absolutely quiet during this precarious shortcut the Proteus takes since any noise heard through the ear could be disastrous for the tiny craft. The movie does like using silence a lot and Fleisher delivers on a tense scene with it.
Not only does the drama and suspense come from the mission, but from the occupants and their interactions between each other. This is where I think the film stumbles somewhat. The characters are serviceable, but none really stand out very much. The movie definitely could have made a more colorful and memorable crew of characters inside the Proteus.
Pleasance is probably my favorite person onboard. He’s always suspicious and cagey throughout the whole thing. He’s claustrophobic, which would make it seem like he wouldn’t be an ideal person to have onboard. So there’s some fun from him. Plus, how can anyone not love listening to his voice.
There’s a bit of philosophical musings by the good Dr. Duvall. He’s the more spiritual man on this sub, while Dr. Michael is more scientific and easily dismissive towards the idea of God, man, the creator, the marvel of the human body – eh what’s the big deal about any of that. Pleasance is amusing how he just shrugs off some of Duval’s admiration to what he’s seeing on this trip. Some of Duval’s reverence comes off a bit hammy and melodramatic also. I get the message they’re trying to convey, but it comes across a bit ponderous.
A much better scene that extols the miraculous thing life is comes from almost a throwaway scene with O’Brien. In the control room as he spots an ant on a table. He’s about to kill it and holds back leaving it alone. I thought that little moment packs more of a wallop and makes one think much more than any lofty dialogue Duval preaches.
Captain Owens basically pilots the ship and nothing more. Boyd plays such a straight-laced leading man-type that I always find it hard to really root for him. He just comes across as so flat and unexciting. He essentially becomes the audience surrogate. Since he has no medical knowledge and was quickly prepped for the mission and isn’t familiar with the ship he gets to ask a lot of questions which in turn explains things to us.
This type of character is a necessity, but they didn’t make him a special one just an adequate one. Even when he takes charge, thinks up solutions and does action-y type of stuff I was never impressed by him.
Then we come to Raquel – eye candy. That’s pretty much it. She has the least amount of dialogue out of the main cast. And some of her line readings are pretty stiff too. It’s not a great performance. I can’t imagine they cast her for any other reason than her looks and to give the movie some sex appeal. Oh yeah, she fulfills that duty no problem.
You might enjoy watching her slip off her mission suit revealing her skintight diving suit underneath (the camera stays on her for the sole purpose for you to enjoy the view). It’s such a gratuitously obvious ploy to get us to wag our tongues. As for anything else you might like about the character of Cora it ends with her physical attributes.
There’s a some spirited excitement to be found on the voyage. Detours through the pounding heart, whirlwinds in the lungs, clingy and crushing antibodies. Leonard Roseman’s score helps it all along. It’s haunting and mystical and compliments the discovery and danger of the movie.
Fantastic Voyage wasn’t one of the big box office champs in 1966. It did decent business, but wasn’t even in the top twenty money makers for the year. It didn’t even come close to the films that dominated the box office in ’66, like The Bible: In The Beginning, Hawaii, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? and The Sand Pebbles.
Still it was popular enough there would be an animated series based on the film that would last one season in 1968. There have been a few films with a similar premise since then. The biggest one was Innerspace in 1987, however, Fantastic Voyage never had any sequels or a remake in the fifty years since its debut.
I’m actually surprised that Fox hasn’t gotten around to updating it. It seems like a natural for big popcorn movie. Fun premise, big special effects movie, it just seems the ideal type of movie a studio would like to have for a big tentpole summer movie. There’s been rumors of a Fantastic Voyage remake for a long time now. The most recent talk is director Guillermo del Toro eyeing to direct a remake.
Other than in those rare instances, typically a remake will be at best a pale version of the original film, but I’d be very curious about an update of Fantastic Voyage. In the right hands I can see where some improvements in the story, notably with the characters, could be made.
Plus, it would be interesting to see how the visuals and effects would use to showcase the inside of a body. I’ve gotten my full of seeing 21st century CGI be used to destroy landmarks and cities, how about doing something new with it.
Let’s see what some digital artists could do to make it look like a miniaturized ship is racing through a human heart or have someone fly around inside a breathing lung. I could see them doing some pretty cool stuff with the premise. There would be less technical limitations than they had in 1966. The only catch would be will they be creative enough to capitalize on it and truly make it a fantastic voyage for audiences to go on.
Whether fans think it will be a good idea or not, I’m betting a remake of Fantastic Voyage will eventually happen at some point. Until then the original 1966 film remains an entertaining adventure that will leave you feeling satisfied. It will also remind you that taking Raquel Welch along on any voyage is a good idea.