When it’s on: Saturday, 7 March (12.55 pm)
The premise of Fantastic Voyage is this – the Cold War simmers on, and scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain have developed the technology to miniaturise objects and even human beings. The possibilities this represents are perceived to be decisive potentially, but there’s a catch. The miniaturisation process lasts for only sixty minutes, after which the subject will irrevocably expand back to the original size. One Russian boffin has discovered a solution and, even better, he wants to defect to the west. Getting off the plane on US soil, he’s gunned down by enemy agents, and is left fighting for his life, comatose and with a blood clot on his brain. Not removing the clot will kill him, and the only way to do so is to use the new process, inject a microscopic team of surgeons into the man’s bloodstream and get them to use a laser to clear it. All in the space of an hour.
Enter Stephen Boyd as Grant, a CIA agent who helped the scientist to defect. He joins the small crew taking a submarine, the Proteus, into the scientist’s body. His fellows include mission leader, Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), surgeon Dr Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). As the team is miniaturised, the procedure is overseen by military staff who work through innumerable cups of coffee and cigars whilst the ‘operation’ takes place.
Fantastic Voyage was one of those films that constantly seemed to be on television when I was a child. A major success and rather a thrilling premise, the fun was had from the moment the team enters the scientist’s bloodstream and experience the human body from a unique perspective. Thrillingly, the plot moves as quickly as possible to get them to this juncture, and the hour they spend in miniature form is played in close to real time, the countdown adding to the tension as they face various pitfalls on their journey. What makes it even better is that one of the crew is clearly a double agent and out to sabotage the mission, a plot Grant attempts to uncover as the minutes tick away.
Watched now, the cracks start to appear. The biology seems sound enough to layman viewers and there’s a note of authenticity before the film starts to add to its gravitas. Leonard Rosenman’s score doesn’t kick in until they’re in the bloodstream, as though giving the piece a documentary feel. However, the miniaturisation, whilst a cleverly assembled sequence, is straight out of science fiction. It’s a great process, the submarine shrunk until it’s the size of a toy car, before it’s placed carefully into a big cylinder of liquid that is then diminished so that it can form the trunk of a syringe. But it’s crazy, and they know it, keeping technobabble to a minimum so that audiences can enjoy the ride without being fobbed off with a pat explanation of how it all works.
The main length of the film, whilst the crew are inside the man, is good stuff, utilising contemporary cutting edge special effects that don’t look so terrible now (and indeed, it was for technical achievements that it won two Academy Awards). I like the scenes inside the lungs, which look like an alien landscape from an episode of Star Trek, when it’s explained that what appears to be rocks are in fact specks of dust. The whole sequence reminds me of the Starship Enterprise’s lengthy flight to the centre of V’ger in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, which makes sense as Kirk and his crew were traversing the extended ‘body’ of the little probe.
But it is hokum, complete fiction, and this was recognised by writer Isaac Asimov, who was approached to pen the novelisation. At first dismissive, Asimov went ahead with the job with the proviso that he could lessen some of the film’s crazier leaps in logic, for instance dealing with the destruction of the Proteus. In the film, white blood cells attack and destroy the submarine, but any bits of wreckage left behind would be sure to expand after an hour, bursting horribly from within the scientist. Along with the discarded laser gun, this turned into a fatal oversight that was resolved in the book, though clearly it was hoped the excitement of the climactic moments would excise any of this from the thoughts of viewers.
Fantastic Voyage was directed by sure hand Richard Fleischer, who brought some of his technical people from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to help make the show look more realistic. Fleischer knew how to make a tale tick along, aware that audiences would want to get from the set-up to the realisation as quickly as possible and not wasting time in making it unfold. Boyd was entirely capable of playing square jawed heroes and, despite having no medical experience, comes to suggest solutions to the crew members that keep the mission going, relying on little more than his sense of authority and charisma. Kennedy’s job is to come out with philosophical statements that bring to life the wonders of the human body, saying things like ‘Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought’ whilst looking on in sheer amazement. Welch, who at the time was in the process of attaining stardom, has little to do beyond look good in her tight fitting (obviously) scuba diving costume and get into situations of peril, as in the moment when she’s attacked by antibodies and has the indignity of her fellow crew members removing them from all over her body. As for Pleasance, he’s one of those actors, like Herbert Lom and Brian Cox, whose presence removes any sense of mystery when there’s a secret villain within the crew…
The film inspired an animated series, novels and a comic book, and talks continue over the possibility of a remake, with various illustrious directors attached. It does seem to be one of those stories tailor-made for a twenty first century update, and there’s something tantalising about recreating the ‘inner space’ scenes using the latest CGI technology. For now, there’s this version, which remains a slice of good fun and certainly doesn’t fail to thrill, as in the famous scene involving a pair of dropped scissors, something mundane that creates great suspense.
Fantastic Voyage: ***