Made today, Judge Cynthia Boris suspects the fantastic voyage would have targeted a botox malfunction and Jan Benes would have been a smoking swimsuit model rather than a crusty Russian scientist. Oh, it would also have lots of CGI and a techno soundtrack.
Journey Into The Living Body Of A Man!
A replica of the inside of the human body, animated antibodies that attack on cue, miniatures and wire work, underwater photography, and a special effect of a ship and its occupants shrinking to microscopic size…Now imagine doing all of that in an era where you had to use a slide rule because the hand-held calculator hadn't been invented yet.
This is truly a Fantastic Voyage.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the secret headquarters of CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces). This hush-hush government project has developed the secret of miniaturization but can't crack the problem of keeping things miniaturized for more than one hour. Enter Jan Benes, a Russian scientist who has the answer. He has agreed to defect to the US. But this being the Cold War era and all, an assassination attempt is made on his life and he ends up in a coma thanks to a blood clot in his brain.
Colonel Reid (Arthur O'Connell) and General Carter (Edmund O'Brien) decide that the best way to remove the clot is to miniaturize a team and inject them into Benes's body where they can use a surgical laser to destroy the clot from the inside.
The team consists of pilot Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield), Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance, Halloween), surgeon Dr. Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy), his assistant Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch, Myra Breckinridge) and CIA agent Grant (Stephen Boyd, Ben-Hur).
Riding inside the submarine Proteus, the group must make its way to Benes' brain in under an hour while avoiding the natural hazards of the body (attacking antibodies, the beating the heart, the bloodstream currents) as well as some unnatural hazards caused by a traitor on board the sub.
One of my favorite family events as a kid was going to the drive-in movie. My sisters and I would dress in our pajamas and we'd pile the back seat of the car with pillows and blankets. Mom would pack snacks and it would be dad's job to find that perfect parking space in the lot and then affix that two-ton speaker to the window. It's probably the worst possible way to watch a movie, peering through a car window from the backseat to see a film projected on a grainy, torn screen while listening through a staticy, tinny speaker—but I loved it. And to this day I still remember the very first movie I saw at a drive-in. It was a double bill of The Gnome-Mobile and Fantastic Voyage.
I remember being very perplexed by the opening sequence as I was way too young to understand the Cold War significance of the attack. But once they were sailing away in the blood stream, I was hooked on the visuals. I remember the colors, the dancing corpuscles, and the pounding of the heart. It's the first film I ever remember seeing on a movie screen and it's likely responsible for my becoming a sci-fi movie geek.
Fantastic Voyage is a highly underrated sci-fi film with a score that deserves as much praise as the film itself. While watching, it's easy to forget that this movie was made long before the advent of digital special effects. That means that everything you see on the screen is a practical effect and how they managed to pull it off is nothing short of amazing.
Start with the submarine Proteus. This ship is brilliant in both the interior and exterior design and it has inspired many a model maker over the years. Miniatures of several sizes were created for the film, but they also built a full-sized mock-up. When you see the characters moving around inside the ship, they really are inside the ship.
Once the Proteus is injected into the body, you're treated to a combination of full-size sets and miniature special effects all designed to recreate the interior of a human body. Like works of pop art, these sets utilized unusual materials and washes of colored lights to create a fantastic and mysterious world. The warm tones of the orchestral sound track works hand in hand with the visuals drawing you in and making you believe that you're seeing what you're seeing.
Extensive wirework was used to simulate the effect of the characters swimming through the blood stream and clever reverse photography was employed to create the sequences where anti-bodies attack.
And even though the movie is known for its effects, the actors deserve their fair share of credit, too. Donald Pleasance in particular does an excellent job and ironically, even though O'Connell and O'Brien have little to do in the script, they're immensely watchable.
This Special Edition release is a terrific upgrade from the former stripped down release that was put out as a double feature along with Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which is also being re-released this month).
There are two commentaries on the film led by film historian Jeff Bond. At first, I resisted this idea but in the end found his commentary to be immensely more satisfying than the typical commentary by a director who can barely remember making the film. Bond is a gold mine of information and it didn't hurt that he kept mentioning my favorite movie producer Irwin Allen!
Did you know that Allen wanted to use the Proteus as a rescue sub in Poseidon Adventure? Now that's great trivia.
In addition to the film commentary, there is an isolated score track with Bond and two music historians discussing the soundtrack for the film. This is something new and different and I found it very enjoyable.
"Lava Lamps & Celluloid: A Tribute to the Visual Effects of Fantastic Voyage" is a featurette that delves into the effects with interviews from both people who worked on the film and current effects wizards. After watching this, my appreciation for the film went up two notches. They truly accomplished the impossible.
The rest of the special features are less impressive and quite typical. And please, can someone invent a better way to view the galleries on DVD. Can we make a thumbnail page so we can pick and choose? There are some terrific stills included here but they're buried under page after page of less interesting material. The "Whirlpool Scene: Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison" didn't intrigue me and the "Interactive Pressbook" was so hard to manipulate and so impossible to read that I gave up on it after a few minutes.
Thumbs up for the theatrical trailers, TV spots, and the collection of foreign poster art.
The audio and video quality are both excellent and the return to the original 60's poster art on the packaging was a welcome choice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You could be picky and note a wire here and a plot flaw there, but why bother?
Fantastic Voyage is an intelligent, exciting science fiction film that really does take you where no man has gone before. Great special effects, an inventive script, excellent actors and a ticking clock—I'm not sure modern filmmakers could do any better, though I would like to see them try.
The court's verdict was miniaturized to the point of becoming unreadable, but don't worry, it'll pop back to normal size in an hour from now.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film & Music Historian Jeff Bond
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