Fantastic Voyage: call for the doctor, this film of inner space has no vital signs!

Richard Fleischer, “Fantastic Voyage” (1966)

Set during the Cold War in the 1960s – or was it the 1990s? – “Fantastic Voyage” has a wonderful premise of space exploration … within the human body! Unfortunately the small budget allocated to the making of this film was used up in the design of the sets and effects and the salaries of the people who did them. While the plot must have looked interesting enough on paper, on film it’s so low-key it hardly generates any heat close enough to normal body temperature. Whatever the plot was meant to be, it was never fully realised in this film; director Fleischer and his crew were too caught up in the wonder of having a tiny submarine take five people through blood vessels through the heart and into the brain to think about bringing to life (ha!) the plot, its themes and the characters in the film.

A defecting Russian scientist is badly wounded during an ambush and he lapses into a coma. Because his knowledge of secret technology is valued, the US government arranges for a secret medical unit within the Pentagon to miniaturise a medical team in a submarine and inject the lot into the man’s artery to perform internal neurosurgery, since this cannot be done from the outside. Once inside the body, the team must battle a series of obstacles to reach the brain where the injury was done. One of the team, a security agent (Stephen Boyd) discovers there is a saboteur on board. He must discover who the saboteur is before that person can stop the operation from going ahead. The team is given only 60 minutes to repair the damage before the effects of miniaturisation wear off, the submarine starts returning to normal size and is attacked by white macrophages.

It all sounds quite exciting but the genius of the film is that its small budget forced a bare-bones style of narrative and action. The acting is just sufficient to keep the dialogue and action going; the only real acting we see belongs to Donald Pleasance who plays the villain of the piece. Raquel Welch as one of the crew members provides an eye candy moment when, during an emergency repair job on the sub, she is hurled into some lymphatic nodes and is attacked by antibodies. The rest of the crew rescue her and have to pull the antibodies off her curvaceous form. Boyd’s agent carries out most of the heroic action and thinks up the most risky ideas to keep the mission going.

The real star of the film though is the body through which the sub travels: it supplies beautifully coloured backgrounds of lava-lamp blobby blood corpuscles glowing red and blue, seaweed-like forests in the lymphatic system, hay-like wax in the inner ear canals and ice-crystalline caves in the brain that periodically flash lights (representing nerve impulses). Much imagination went into the set design and its colouring.

Due to the wooden acting and skeletal plot, the film relies very heavily on the technology of its time and as a result has dated very badly. There are themes about God versus Darwin and religion generally, and the film opts for a point of view in synchrony with the prevailing conservative political and cultural views of 1960s mainstream American society. The Cold War context intrudes at a critical point in the film but otherwise is left as a loose end; indeed, several loose ends are left dangling when the mission has concluded. We do not know whether the operation is successful and what secrets the Russian scientist was carrying. “Fantastic Voyage” could have been more than a jaw-dropping visual experience but instead it’s very lumpen. There are rare moments of humour involving a couple of Pentagon generals waiting out the 60 minutes with cigarettes, coffee and sugar but apart from those the film flat-lines more than shows any vital signs.

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