by Mel Valentin
During the 1950s and the 1960s, science fiction as a genre in fiction and film was accorded little respect by publishers and film producers. Most films during these two decades received modest or sometimes, sub-par budgets. Science-fiction films were considered B-level properties, often tacked on as the second film in a double bill or simply treated as exploitation fodder by producers interested in a high return on a low investment. Noteworthy, A-level science-fiction films, with top stars, well known directors, thoughtful scripts, and reasonable effects budgets were few and far between (most were made on black-in-white stock). In 1966, Stanley Kubrick’s brand of intellectual, metaphysical science fiction, "2001: A Space Odyssey" was still two years away from completion (production began in 1964), but even then, initially poor box office results quickly scuttled ambitious genre films for almost another decade.From that roughly twenty-year period, Fantastic Voyage remains one of the few notable studio efforts, primarily for pushing the envelope of what color special effects could and should do to advance story, even as the by-the-numbers script gave short shrift to character depth or development (or for that matter, a credible premise). Rather than reaching for the stars, Fantastic Voyage goes in the opposite direction, into inner space, as a crew of miniaturized scientists and military types, fighting the good fight against the evil specter of communism, enter the body of a dying man to perform surgery on an ostensibly inoperable blood clot. With this kind of premise, contemporary viewers are best advised to place their considerable doubts (and impending bouts of laughter) and try to put themselves in a 1960s frame of mind, where the concept of nanotechnology was still two decades away (let alone advances in modern science that would make the miniaturization of humans all-but-obsolete).
"A science lesson masquerading as a science fiction film."
As Fantastic Voyage opens, a middle-aged scientist, a defector from the “other side” (the former Soviet Union is left unnamed), is injured in a car crash engineered by his former employers. This scientist, of course, holds the key to the revolutionary new technology of miniaturization. It seems both sides have the miniaturization technology effectively canceling whatever advantage the technology might have, but this new technology suffers from a fatal flaw: miniaturization lasts exactly sixty minutes before the process reverses itself. The scientist promises to reveal the secret that will allow our side complete control over the process.
Enter the CMDF (Combined Miniature Defense Forces), a super secret branch of the armed services. A cigar-chomping, caffeine- and sugar-addicted officer, General Carter (Edmund O’Brien, D.O.A.) creates a task force to complete what seems to be an impossible operation. The task force includes the strong-jawed, if bland hero, Grant (Stephen Boyd, Ben Hur, The Fall of the Roman Empire), Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield), Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance, Halloween, Prince of Darkness), Dr. Duvall (Arthur Kennedy, The Man From Laramie, Bend in the River), and Dr. Duvall’s comely assistant, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch, One Million Years, B.C.), the only female in the group. To reach their destination inside the dying scientist’s brain, the group must use a reconverted submersible, the “Proteus.”
With more than the first third of the film given over to exposition, the miniaturization scenes signal that the plot is or will be shortly underway. Alas, the miniaturization scenes are overlong, played for suspense where none exists (since there's absolutely zero possibility of anything going wrong here). The Proteus, now miniaturized, is finally injected into the dying scientist’s bloodstream. Cue hardworking special effects team. As the crew looks on in awe and wonderment (and express a metaphysical idea or two), the Proteus slips past free floating red corpuscles. In the first of many complications, the Proteus is carried off course by a strong current into a jugular. The crew of the Proteus, forced to improvise, must navigate through the human heart, a lung, the lymphatic system, and ultimately, through the human brain. Meanwhile, as the dying scientist’s immune system stirs, the Proteus and its crew become potential targets of antibodies and white blood cells.
But the Proteus faces more than one antagonist (the Cold War background gives an obvious hint) interested in ending their mission and the scientist’s life. As each new complication surfaces, along with the arbitrary, screenwriter-provided sixty-minute deadline, the crew is faced with discontinuing their mission and saving their own lives. Inter-crew conflicts follow, with Dr. Duval pushing for completion of the mission, Grant stolidly standing his ground, Dr. Michaels suggesting caution, and Cora Peterson present primarily as a barely acknowledged or developed romantic interest for Grant (and, in Raquel Welch, eye candy for the rest of us) or, where necessary, as the obligatory at-risk character that allows Grant a more heroic role.
With an emphasis on plot and special effects, and despite lengthy exposition, Fantastic Voyage spends minimal time with the crew of the Proteus. They’re more or less their roles, scientists, military, government operative, with non-existent backstories or inner lives. Cora was added to the storyline for no other reason than to include a woman as a crewmember. Given the gender politics of the time, it’s unsurprising that Grant refers to her as a “girl” the first time he sees her, strictly by her first name ((presumably she’s a medical doctor or scientist in her own right) or in the two scenes meant to remind the audience of Raquel Welch’s natural beauty (there’s one scene where she slips out of a jumpsuit, exposing a body-hugging wetsuit and later, a gratuitous scene involving the men helping to remove seaweed-like antibodies from her wetsuit). On a related note, having one scientist express his belief in a creator (i.e., intelligent design) also signals that God and science aren't mutually opposed. Instead, the concept of God working through science is meant to oppose, what else, godless communism (and, by extension, atheists who happen to profess leftist politics).As for the special effects, modern audiences aren’t likely to be fooled by the model work. From scene to scene, the illusion that viewers are watching a full-sized submersible never quite takes effect (a problem perhaps of scale, detail, and movement). Some optical effects (e.g., the submersible moving through a bloodstream coursing with red or green corpuscles) are more than passable, even by today’s exacting standards. Other effects, with the actors in their diving gear actually suspended on wires, are close to comical (but understandable, given the available technology). Ultimately, "Fantastic Voyage" falls short of "fantastic," due not the dated special effects, but to the unsatisfactory storyline and underwritten characters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to viewers that "Fantastic Voyage's" cartoon-like premise resulted in a short-lived Saturday morning animated series.
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originally posted: 07/31/05 22:19:33