Fantastic Voyage (1966) is as much a minor masterpiece as it is a cultural relic. It’s a robust sci-fi adventure as supremely inventive as it is severely dated, standing as a wonderfully fun, ahead-of-its time fantasy riff made more enjoyable as a result of its place in cinematic history. It forgets to hold back on the large doses of self-seriousness that often peppered the interiors of its similarly-minded peers, forgets that Raquel Welch isn’t believable as a scientist no matter how good the writing is, and forgets that trying to top Forbidden Planet (1956) in terms of spectacle is never going to happen. And yet it invigorates and it thrills, taking a thought-provoking, colorful story (based on a kooky tale written by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby) and bringing it to life with the zest of a particularly inspired comic.
Throughout its vibrant 100 minutes, I was utterly delighted — its extensive storytelling and acting flaws skirted by harsh judgment thanks to its childlike charm. How couldn’t it be lovable: Fantastic Voyage, written by Harry Kleiner and directed by Richard Fleischer, involves the undertaking of a seemingly impossible mission that involves the Iron Curtain, secret agents, and a shrink ray.
All the action in the film is centered around Dr. Jan Benes (Jean Del Wal), a CIA-partnering Russian scientist who, at the beginning of the movie, has finalized a new process that will allow scientists to temporarily miniaturize matter. Being the sought-after figure that he is, though, Benes is shot down by enemies who discover his plans to share his insights with the United States. By sheer luck, he isn’t killed. Instead, he’s left comatose and unresponsive, hardly good things to be when you have such treacherous information on the brain. With chances of Benes dying before he can even make it to the operating table high, the unthinkable has to be considered. What if a band of highly qualified personnel, ranging from scientists to haughty government types, were to fall victim to Benes’ shrink-centric “weapon,” have themselves and a governmentally mandated ship sized down to the height of bacteria, and travel within the man’s body to remove the blood clot blocking the information they so desperately want to get their paws on?
Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd), a no-nonsense agent hired to head the mission, scoffs at the idea. “I can’t even put a Band-Aid on my finger,” he says. But after some convincing is it decided that the gaggle of movers and shakers will actually be inserted inside Benes’ body, tasked with traveling to his brain and trying not to disrupt homeostasis as he lies unconsciously. Sixty minutes is all they have — and those 60 minutes are rousing. Predictably, the set design cannot be too visually sensational – consider that the inner-workings of the human body are about as artistically intriguing as a Chabrol picture. Excitement, then, comes from the various functions of the human body, and how easily they’re able to interfere with what’s at stake. Humorously, an arteriovenous fistula and an army of white blood cells become villains, and the ending even sees the team of protagonists escaping out of one of Benes’ tear-ducts before returning to regular size. And it’s a hoot watching Fleischer helm these scenes with flinty trepidation and watching his actors act as though they’re reciting Arthur Miller. This is conceptually simplistic pulp that manages to turn into something more because it takes on the tone of something more than a cheap thrill.
In the years since its original 1966 release (it was the 22nd highest-grossing feature of that year), Fantastic Voyage has proven itself to be a film with cultural staying power. Aside from inspiring an animated series of the same name, cinematic copycats have abounded, from Innerspace (1987) to Osmosis Jones (2001) and back to Antibody (2002). But as it goes with singular cinematic excursions that turn innovation into an art, the blueprint that started it all is the one that usually keeps the brightest glow. Fantastic Voyage is no exception. A-