Sometimes a movie experience is heightened when you imagine yourself in the year the film was released, especially with films that came out forty or fifty years ago. The reason I praised “Arrival” as much as I did was because it came out the same week as the recent U.S. election and it instilled hope and communication amongst all of mankind in a time when that is what audiences needed to hear.
This film, “Fantastic Voyage” might seem kind of drab and ludicrous by today’s standards, especially with that title, but think of what movie-goers were dealing with in 1966. Science fiction had already explored the vast reaches of space, the Cold War was at its height, while also being in the middle of the Vietnam War, we were still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and fight for rights among African Americans was still underway.
Audiences still had “2001: A Space Odyssey” to look forward to, but there hadn’t been many sci-fi spectacles for some time. Perhaps the concept of aliens and space exploration had grown tiresome. So instead of going to another galaxy, we would look inside ourselves and see the wonders that our own bodies have to offer.
“Fantastic Voyage” takes place in the far-off future of 1999, when a secret government organization that can shrink anyone and anything to microscopic size for an hour is in danger. One of their leading scientists had recently discovered the key to make the shrinking process last longer than an hour and was attacked by Soviets and put into a coma. The attack caused a blood clot to develop in his brain and it is impossible to remove without killing him. The organizations’ solution is to shrink a submarine with a knowledgable crew of doctors, inject it into the scientists blood and travel up to his brain and destroy the clot from the inside with a powerful laser.
This is one of those movies where you shouldn’t worry about the finer details, like why the shrinking process only lasts an hour, because there is a lot of fine work being done on what the human body looks like on the inside. The charm of “Fantastic Voyage” comes from imaginative landscapes of the blood stream, the heart, the lungs, ear drums and brain would operate on an active microscopic level and interacting with it. To see this vast black emptiness become populated with blood cells or the many cavities of the heart lay motionless as the submarine navigates its corridors is a colorful and personal journey that lives up to the title.
Imagine “The Forbidden Planet” except it all takes place inside the human body.
My only complaint with “Fantastic Voyage” is the mentality of certain crew members, in particular Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance), when if even the slightest thing goes awry he demands they leave and abandon the mission. Granted, Dr. Michaels may or may not have had alterior motives, but this happens at least three times during the journey. It makes you wonder why he was put in charge of the mission when he is so quick to give up on it so many times.
Overall, “Fantastic Voyage” is a delightfully charming piece of 1960s science fiction. Short on logic and a shallow story, the film easily makes up for it with a tour through the human body unlike anything before or since. There are also plenty of quiet moments where the characters contemplate the genius that goes into creating all life, so there’s something here for everyone.
Final Grade: A-