Back when I was in junior high school I was already a fervent science fiction fan as were the vast majority of my friends. At lunch we would get together to discuss the latest film set to impress the devotees of the genre. In seventh grade the hottest new movie out at the time was the film I’m looking back on here, ‘Fantastic Voyage’. We were already quite accustomed to intrepid men taking rocket ships to explore the cosmos but this film took us in the opposite direction, inner space. Within the context of the plot American scientist had discovered a method to shrink normal matter down to microscopic size. Rather the venture forth into the vast reaches of the universe these people had to transverse the uncharted reaches of our own bodies. The movie has gone on to become a perennial favorite and enduring cult classic that remains as entertaining as ever even after forty six years have passed. This was also a time when the biological sciences were beginning to take a greater part in scientific research. Although the film is able to keep it superior level of enjoyably it does work better when placed in its proper historical context. 1966 was the height of the cold war; deadly tension between the two nuclear world super powers; The United States and The Soviet Union. This engendered s rapid proliferation of spy thrillers in every conceivable form of popular entertainment. This was the heyday of James Bond, international espionage with as high tech gadgetry twist. ‘Fantastic voyage had everything a thirteen year old boy could want in a movie, an advanced ship, laser rifles and futuristic technology. Added to this was Raquel Welch in a skin tight wet suit. Ms Welch was considered at the time the epitome of cinematic sex symbol. It represented several of the most popular tropes that defined the entertainment environment of the time. It is movies like this that make a DVD collection so much fun. Sure the modern blockbusters created with high definition in mind are fantastic but flicks like this are a significant part of our personal history and watching then again on a high def TV and surround sound system not only brings those memories rushing back we get to enjoy the movies in as format better than the original presentation.
The cold war is rapidly escalating with an emphasis of technology with military applications. The state of research and development has gone far beyond thermonuclear devices into more esoteric forms of physics. One technology that has been seen as possessing great potential is a device that can reduce the space between atoms greatly reducing the size and mass of any object. This prompted a new race between the States and Russia for a militarily viable means to miniaturize an entire army to fit in the space of a box of matches. The only problem is the process has a limitation; after sixty minutes whatever was miniaturized returns to its normal size. This severely limits the tactical advantage of the technology so all resources are devoted to resolving the problem. As the story opens the advantage seems to be with the Soviets. Their leading scientist in the field, Dr. Jan Benes (Jean Del Val), has cracked the time limit. The good news for our side is he is a dissident and has expressed his wish to defect. Our intelligence agency dispatches their top agent, Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd) to extract the scientist. There is no record of his breakthrough to leave behind; the secret is in his head. With freedom in sight the soviet agents attack seriously wounding Benes. He was left with an inoperable clot in his brain that if not removed soon will kill him. The only solution is risky and entirely unorthodox. Benes is taken to a well hidden research facility operated by the C.M.D.F. (Combined Miniaturized Deterrent Forces). In cold war movies our covert organizations always had benign names like deterrent to reinforce the notion we are the good guys.
The only hope to save Benes and obtain the technological advantage over the Russians is to miniaturize a neurosurgeon and bring him into Benes brain to remove the clot from the inside. Unfortunately, there is a suspicion the team has been infiltrated so Grant has to go along to provide security. The surgeon chosen, Dr. Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy), is possible the double agent. A nuclear submarine, the Proteus, will take then inside Benes to the site of the injury. The craft is piloted by Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield), with Dr. Michaels (y Donald Pleasence) serving as navigator. Also onboard is Dr. Peter’s assistant, Cora (Raquel Welch). Outside the mission’s progress can be tracked by tracing the speck of nuclear material that powers the craft. The mission was to be straight forward but everything is thrown into danger when they slip through an arteriovenous fistula that forces then off course into an extended journey through the human body.
The main reason this film has remained so enjoyable for so long is because it was built on solid elements of storytelling that never go out of style. While the espionage angle is indicative of the sixties it is only one aspect of the movie. The inherent to the premise of the film is the time honored plot device of the ticking time bomb and the Sword of Damocles. If the team isn’t extracted within the one hour limit the ship will grow back to normal sixe exploding the patient. The dangers they face, running out of air, having to go through inner ear or transverse the heart were intently dramatic yet they take place in the most mundane setting, our own bodies. The specially effects are admittedly primitive by today’s standards but keep in mind this was before many on the CGI geniuses responsible for modern effects were even born. Blurring the lines between outer and inner space was unheard of making this a ground breaking film. You will need to suspend belief more than usual. There are more plot holes here than in a fishing net. Do not attempt to rationalize any of the ‘science’ depicted here, you will go crazy trying to reconcile all the technical gaps. Just refrain from over analyzing the film and enjoy.
Commentary by Film & Music Historian Jeff Bond