Fantastic Voyage (1966) – Directed by Richard Fleischer – Starring Stephen Boyd, Donald Pleasance, Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch, William Redfield, Edmond O’Brien, and Arthur O’Connell.
Remember, it’s true,
That loyalty is valuable,
But our lives are valuable, too.
— David Bowie, “Fantastic Voyage”
It’s not the special effects that fail to hold up in FANTASTIC VOYAGE, but a script that fails to generate enough tension to sustain you from start to finish, and some weirdly odd pacing that seems to throw up roadblocks at all the wrong times.
The premise is that some super important guy who’s gonna tell the government a secret gets shot and falls into a coma. Luckily, the United States has a top secret program whose purpose is to shrink things. (Yup. Thank you, 1960s.) They’re even got a logo and everything. The problem is that whatever they shrink can only stay shrunk for 60 minutes, because 60 minutes sounds much more dramatic than 4.5 hours. The comatose scientist has the secret to elongated shrinkage so the government puts a bunch of people in a sub and shrinks it down and injects it into the scientist so they can travel to his brain and remove the blood clot and save him and America can beat those darn Commies in the race to become Micronauts.
FANTASTIC VOYAGE is mostly just a dull movie with dull characters having a dull adventure. There are tense scenes, but not nearly enough of them. There’s a few touches of humor, but they’re not really funny. There’s some really cool special effects, but most of the effects are just big sets with wispy curtains. There’s some science vs. religion philosophizing, but all you really get is one decent exchange out of it. There’s an attractive woman with big boobs and a government agency man with allusions to womanizing, but after one attempt to flirt, he gets shut down and forgets about it (other than one hilarious scene where they’re in a whirlpool and they’re jammed up against the wall and it looks like all he’s interested in doing is looking right at her chest). There’s a spy on board, but no one seems to want to do anything about it.
All of that being said, it’s still worth a watch. The set pieces inside the human body generate a decent amount of tension as the crew has to navigate the perils of the human body.
There’s three sequences in FANTASTIC VOYAGE: the attack on Dr. Benes and the recruitment of Charles Grant to go on the shrinkage mission; the shrinking of the crew and submarine; the travel through the body to save Benes’ life.
The first section is really done in two parts: the attack on Benes (which is effective) and the recruitment of Grant (which is silly). Grant is called in to the super secret base and it’s the kind of facility that looks like it was filmed in a parking garage. They ride golf carts everywhere, even though they never really go all that far or fast. But it’s the ’60s, so I guess important people moved from place to place on golf carts when they were in top secret underground government facilities, and who am I to argue with history?
Grant, despite being a super cool government agent, doesn’t want to go on the mission because this whole program devoted to making you small gives him the gee-willickers, but the military fat cats in charge are all, “You’re doing it. We’ve got a movie to make,” so Grant does it.
He meets the rest of the crew: the government doc, Dr. Miller (Donald Pleasance), surgeon Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch), and Captain Owens (William Redfield), who pilots the sub. They are all several shades of deep vanilla. Seriously, they’re all these prim and proper, clean cut types with respectable jobs and good performance evals. The military tells Grant that Duval might be working for the Russians, so Grant’s job is to watch Duval in case he attempts a “surgical assassination.”
When this movie is remade with Jason Statham as Grant, Lance Henriksen as Duval, Sean Patrick Flannery as Captain Owens, Bob Hoskins as Miller, and Asia Argento as Cora, it’s totally going to be called FANTASTIC VOYAGE: SURGICAL ASSASSINATION.
The film’s second part is incredibly tedious. This is the whole “shrink everyone down and inject it into Benes’ body” bit and it takes 2 entire bowls of popcorn to complete. It is amazing how slow this unfolds, there’s all kinds of military guys saying things like, “Begin Procedure One.” “Beginning Procedure One.” and it … just … takes … for … ever … to put the crew in suits, to put the crew in the ship, to put the ship on a platform, to start the shrinking procedure, to stop the-
On and on and on. It takes so long you start to wonder if they’re ever actually going to start the movie. All the momentum built up by the attack on Benes and the recruitment of Grant and the movie just … stops. I get that they wanted to show the shrinking but did they have to show the procedures, too? Ugh, it’s just … ugh.
What makes it even worse is that when they finally get into the body you’re ready for some roller-coastering with all the intrigue about the possibility of a traitor, with the flirting possibilities between Grant and Cora, the tension between Miller and Duval, and, oh yeah, the whole traveling through the body business.
But it just falls flat. Cora doesn’t want to be hit on. Miller will play pro-science to Duvall’s pro-faith bits once or twice but he’s more interested in not being claustrophobic. The pilot sits above them, not part of the crew dynamic at all, really.
The movie moves at the speed of Disney’s It’s a Small World ride – slow and languid so you can see all the neat things outside your cart. A little of that goes a long way. A lot of that seems to go on forever.
Where the special effects fail is in giving you any real sense that the ship – nicknamed the Proteus – is moving fast at all. Instead of swooping through the arterial system, the Proteus plods along like a deep sea submersible (which is pretty much what it is, after all) investigating the wreck of the Titanic instead of racing against time to get to the brain of a human being.
When the Proteus stops for a set piece – in the heart or ear – or has only a minute to make it through the heart, there is some really nice tension crafted by director Richard Fleischer. Sure, it looks goofy, but the actors and sets and music all come together to ratchet up just enough tension to make these sequences work.
There’s just not enough of them, and the story never really gets the “is Duvall a traitor” angle off the ground. Duvall can’t reveal himself as the traitor until the end of the film, when he has to perform surgery on Benes’ brain, so we just sort of wait around for it. There’s a laser gun that gets sabotaged, but … blah.
The acting from Pleasance and Kennedy is pretty good but there’s not enough interplay between them to make any drama ignite.
There’s a bunch of cuts back to the outside world for a bit of comedic relief more than anything, but it’s only mildly amusing.
The ending comes up on you pretty quick. One second they’re firing a laser at the blood clot, the next Miller is betraying them, and then they’re making a run to the tear duct to escape the body before they start growing.
They get out and it’s over and there’s a busted ship still inside Benes that should be expanding but it doesn’t.
Good guys win. Everybody exit the theater.
The movie is worth a watch for the set pieces, but not for anything else, really. FANTASTIC VOYAGE is historically important (it won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Special Effects), and Leonard Rosenman’s score is pretty cool, but it’s one of those movies you watch once if you like science-fiction movies in order to give it a nod of respect, and then check it off the list.
Which I just did.