April 7, 2017
Jean Del Val
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Fantastic Voyage (1966) is as much a minor masterpiece as it is a fascinating relic. It’s a robust sci-fi adventure as supremely inventive as it is very dated; it's a wonderfully fun, ahead-of-its time fantasy riff made more enjoyable in part because of its place in cinematic history. For all its vibrant 100 minutes I was totally happy; its extensive storytelling and acting flaws don't matter because its childlike charm is infectious. How couldn’t it be lovable: Fantastic Voyage, written by Harry Kleiner and directed by Richard Fleischer, is about a seemingly impossible mission that involves the Iron Curtain, secret agents, and a shrink ray.
Everything in Fantastic Voyage centers 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 almost immediately into the movie 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 want?
Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd), a no-nonsense agent hired to head the mission, not unreasonably scoffs at the idea. “I can’t even put a Band-Aid on my finger,” he says. How's he supposed to do something this high-concept and high stakes? But after some convincing it's decided this gaggle will be put inside Benes’ body, tasked with traveling to his brain and trying not to disrupt homeostasis as he lay unconscious. Sixty minutes is all they have — and those 60 minutes are rousing as a viewer. 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 movie. Excitement, then, comes from the various functions of the body and how they interfere with the improbable stakes. Humorously, an arteriovenous fistula and an army of white blood cells become villains; the ending even sees the team of protagonists escaping out of one of Benes’ tear-ducts before returning to regular size. It’s a hoot watching Fleischer direct these scenes with flinty trepidation and watching his actors act like 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 movie
of that year), Fantastic Voyage has proven to have a lot of surprising cultural staying power. Aside from inspiring an animated series, cinematic copycats have abounded, from Innerspace (1987) to Osmosis Jones (2001) and back to Antibody (2002). But as it goes with singular cinematic journeys that turn never-tried-before innovation into pop art, the blueprint that started it all is the one that usually keeps its glow. A-