‘The medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there’s no limit to either…’ is one of many pretentious lines in Richard Fleischer’s 1966 sci-fi fantasy, but for once, pretention is justified. Before Kubrick’s 2001 put the ‘awe’ into outer-space, Fantastic Voyage engendered some similar emotions with their trip to ‘innerspace’; the film follows an intrepid group whose submarine is injected into the body of a prone scientist. The effects and production design won Oscars, and even if the process work is poor by today’s standards, this voyage still seems fantastic today.
A motely collection, Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welsh and Donald Pleasence are amongst those who don skin-tight plastic wetsuits for the mission, but there’s a good half-hour of chat beforehand just to ramp up expectations. The miniaturisation process is covered in detail, as are the practices and rubrics of the Combined Miniature Deterrent Force who mastermind the project. One of the team is a spy, although that narrative takes a back-seat to tension as the crew of the Proteus navigate the internal workings of Benes (Jean De Val). Memorable moments include a trip through an ear canal, a lazer-firing escape through the brain, an exit through a tear duct, attacks by antibodies, and stopping the patient’s heart so that the ship can pass through in one piece.
‘Every beat separates a man from eternity…’ murmurs one of the doctors, while another considers converting to Hindu-ism because they value all forms of life, large or small. There’s a dash of philosophical insight in the script, keeping things interesting, and the prospect of the ship suddenly returning to full size keeps the film taunt. Welsh seems unusually buttoned down here, but was managing the transition from pin-up to serious actress with some success, while Pleasance gets to do this patented sweaty-brow/agitated-man thing.
Fleischer has previously pulled 20,000 League Under The Sea together for Disney, and knows how to get great visuals; the submarine itself looks pretty functional, and the educational insights into how the human body works are good for young audiences. Miniaturisation has staged periodic comebacks, from Innerspace to Ant Man, but Fantastic Voyage lives up to its title by telling on original story with some verve; it’s a classic of the sci-fi genre, with James Cameron reputedly mulling a remake. It would be nice if any reboot retained the 1960’s setting; this is the missing link between 1950’s space potboilers and the still awe-inspiring future-scapes of 2001.