Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fantastic Voyage (20th Century-Fox, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The next film on the program was the 1966 Fantastic Voyage, a film with a provocative premise that I remember seeing when it first came out. The setting is pure Cold War propaganda: both the U.S. and our Cold War adversaries (carefully unnamed in the committee-written script — Otto Klement and Jay Lewis Bixby get credit for the story, David Duncan for “adaptation” and Harry Kleiner for the actual script, which strongly supports my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers — with Richard Fleischer, whose last name is also the German word for “butcher,” as director) have figured out a way to miniaturize people and other matter to the size of microbes so entire armies can be packed in a suitcase, smuggled wherever they need to go and then reassembled at full size without the bothersome necessity of shipping troops and equipment to a country you wish to invade. The problem is that the process only works for exactly one hour, after which the miniaturized people and equipment automatically revert to normal size. (Interestingly, this was also the premise of Henry Kuttner’s original story “Dr. Cyclops” — a German scientist, Dr. Thorkeld, has set up a lab in Argentina to work on shrinking people and military hardware so der Führer can smuggle armies into the New World and invade — but when his story was filmed in 1940 that was abandoned and Dr. Thorkeld, played by Albert Dekker, became just a generic mad scientist instead.)

There is a way to make the miniaturization last longer than than an hour, but the only person on earth who knows how to do it is Dr. Jan Benes (Jean Du Val), escapee from the Iron Curtain, and when he’s on his way to the secret lab of the Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces (CMDF) (actually “played” by the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, though burnished to a beautiful, shiny gloss without the detritus of tobacco, alcohol, junk food, vomit and urine that usually afflicts real sports arenas) — as one contributor noted, instead of sneaking him in the dead of night in an unmarked car the CMDF people have organized a full motorcade with police escort that’s ridiculously easy for the other side to spot and attack — an enemy car deliberately crashes into his and the great scientist is left with a nasty clot in his brain that’s going to kill him. The clot is unreachable by conventional brain surgery, but if a submarine vessel and crew can be miniaturized and injected into Benes, they can travel up his arteries to the clot, burn it out with a laser beam, save Benes and escape through the venous system … The crew consists of Grant (Stephen Boyd, best known as the villain Messala in the 1959 Ben-Hur but good-looking and square-jawed enough to be a movie hero seven years later), the commander; Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance) and Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), who are supposed to provide the medical expertise; Dr. Duval’s assistant, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), whom he insists has necessary expertise to help him but of course is really there only to provide the teenage straight guys in the audience something to ogle (this was her first major film role and she spends most of the movie looking straight ahead at the camera with a blank expression, but then Welch didn’t become a star because of her face); and captains Donald Reid (Arthur O’Connell) and Bill Owens (William Redfield).

The craft they’re supposed to take their “fantastic voyage” in is called the Proteus (a name that takes one of the crew members by surprise until he’s told, “That’s the name of this vessel; sounds better than calling it the U91O35”), and in a series of annoying stages they’re successively miniaturized and injected into Benes. A number of people at the screening wondered what might have happened if someone had walked through the staging area and put his or her foot down in the wrong place at the wrong time … oops. Once the Proteus and its crew get inside Benes they have to deal with all sorts of cool phenomena; the script posits that blood is actually clear in color — it only looks red because of the presence of red blood cells, which float by like the bubbles in a lava lamp (though it occurred to me that the historical sequence might have gone the other way around — maybe the makers of lava lamps figured out how to do it from the way the effects were done in this movie) —and the blood cells floating in the cool plasma are either red (arterial cells carrying oxygen), blue (venous cells waiting for oxygen molecules to be attached to them so they can be sent out the arteries again and deliver the oxygen to the rest of the body that needs it), or white (infection-fighting cells). The crew members are also warned about antibodies, which we are told will “read” the Proteus and its crew as infectious microbes and clump onto them to kill the enemy invader — and in the big scene everyone remembers Cora Peterson is the victim of an antibody attack as she and the other crew members take one of their extended trips outside the Proteus (in this case to get the seaweed-like tendrils, which are supposed to be lymphatic cells, out of the ship’s vents so it doesn’t overheat) and the males have to pull crystallized antibodies off Raquel Welch’s body and her skin-tight white jumpsuit. One woman at the screening wondered why, with at least three other possible candidates, the antibodies picked on her and left the males alone — to which I replied, “That’s a 1960’s movie for you. Even the antibodies are sexist.”

Of course, the writing committee couldn’t resist yet another one of the clichés of the commando crew in a remote location sub-genre of the war movie (which, let’s face it, is basically what this is): they have one of the crew members be a traitor, deliberately sabotaging the mission, and while it’s supposed to be a big secret it’s not hard to figure out that the traitor is Dr. Michaels. He’s got a shaved head like Erich von Stroheim, he’s being played by Donald Pleasance with the smarmiest version of a British accent the actor could come up with, and he’s openly mocking when Dr. Duval, Grant and the other crew members quote inspirational poetry to the effect that their “fantastic voyage” through a person’s blood system is bringing them closer to God. (It was Charles who noted that part of the film’s Cold War politics was to have the religious believers be the good guys and the skeptic be the bad guy — remember in the Cold War our enemy was officially defined as not just Communism, but “Godless Communism,” and that’s when “In God We Trust” was put on our money and the original Pledge of Allegiance was defiled with the words “under God,” telling me and other non-believers that we can not be real Americans.) Dr. Michaels finally gets his when he and the Proteus are devoured by a white corpuscle, and the other four escape by sneaking out of the corner of Benes’ eye, where they’re transferred to a microscope slide and then returned to the staging area (an assembly of hexagons that in at least some of Fleischer’s shots look like Michael Jackson and a batch of chorus boys are going to emerge and do a dance on it), where they resume full size.

Fantastic Voyage isn’t quite as tacky as Destination Inner Space — after all, it was the production of a major studio (20th Century-Fox) and had actors you’ve heard of, as well as some awesomely beautiful special effects (alternating with some pretty tacky ones) — but it’s not a great movie either. The acting honors are taken by Edmond O’Brien, who plays the general in charge of the whole secret project and delivers a performance of power and authority that shames everyone locked inside that little tin can of a sub (which frankly looks more like a particularly ornate coat button than anything else). Raquel Welch does what she was put in the movie to do — there’s an especially hot scene in which she changes out of a form-fitting overall into a form-fitting white thing under it that at least shows off her cleavage — and there’s a reason why the antibody attack on her is the big scene in this movie that everyone who’s seen it remembers. An “Trivia” poster has this tale about that scene: “When filming the scene where the other crew members remove attacking antibodies from Ms. Peterson for the first time, director Richard Fleischer allowed the actors to grab what they pleased. Gentlemen all, they specifically avoided removing them from Raquel Welch‘s breasts, with an end result that the director described as a ‘Las Vegas showgirl’ effect. Fleischer pointed this out to the cast members — and on the second try, the actors all reached for her breasts. Finally the director realized that he would have to choreograph who removed what from where, and the result is seen in the final cut.”

The contributors also noted the plot holes and inconsistencies involved in the story, particularly the interchanges between miniaturized and non-miniaturized matter, which were resolved when a science-fiction writer with considerably more of a reputation than any who worked on the actual script, Isaac Asimov, was hired to do the novelization of the film. Asimov accepted the job if he’d be given the right to fix the plot holes and get the story into a form that made sense, and because of delays caused by the time it took to get the effects right his novel came out six months before the movie did — which begs the question why the film’s writers didn’t use the delays to edit their script to incorporate Asimov’s changes. It’s also why a lot of science-fiction and film historians got the wrong impression that Fantastic Voyage was based on an Asimov novel. Fantastic Voyage is a fun film, ridiculously uneven — there are remarkable sequences of almost unearthly beauty alternating with ludicrous and risible ones — but it still packs something of the original punch even though the plot premise virtually defines “far-fetched.” Incidentally, the basic premise was used for an animated cartoon shown on Saturday mornings for kids; it ran for 17 episodes in 1968-69 and changed the meaning of CMDF from Combined Miniaturization Deterrent Forces to Combined Miniature Defense Force, changed the name of the craft they sailed in from Proteus to Voyager, and also extended the time limit on the miniaturization from one hour to 12.