I watched the 1966 science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage for the first time last week, and I was blown away. In no small part by the beauty of the analog aesthetic. [Caution: nostalgia hard at work!] It was a special effects-driven extravaganza that also had an excellent plot—the combination of which is transcendental. These are the kind of movies I love the most. A cinema of attractions that also has a viable story is like two movies for the price of one.
The various registers this film works on in the first ten minutes is amazing. It goes immediately from faux documentary with the opening title to cold war noir with the defecting Soviet scientist. All to land on the speculative scifi of scale and the exploration of the inner workings of the human body/mind. The Soviet scientist is shot during his escape and immediately rushed to a secret, underground military hospital to be operated on. The underground hospital is one of my favorite sets in the film. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a wharehouse and some curtains.
The juxtaposition of the different scales of size underline the magic of film as attraction, the ways in which water in the windows behind Donald Pleasance is cut against the sub floating in an oversized syringe tube is a brilliant example of the grammar of cienma to communciate an effect like scale. And what’s so cool is we have the tools for all of this now, the idea of imaginative recomboniation of effects and story remains the holy ghost of creativity.
As the crew is shrunk (for the second time) while floating in the oversized syringe tube they become microscopic and are ready to be injected into the bloodstream of the comatose Soviet scientist. All this, mind you, so they can operate on a blood clot in his brain. A solid ten to fifteen minutes is spent on the laboratory setup and two rounds of shrinking the sub and the syringe. The film takes you through an elaborate, albeit fantastic, scientific process that seems anything but fantasy. There is this interesting insistent on verisimiitude in the film. As if to say “this very well could be happening at a military research lab near you.”
A quick plot point here, the scientist being operated on has the key to indefinitely shrinking matter to an atomic level, which right now is limited to a sixty minute time span before the objects shrunk revert to their original size. Upon shrinking the crew, the film moves to real time and for the next sixty minutes the crew of five (three scientists (including Donald Pleasance and Raquel Welch), a submariner, and a military joe (played by Stephen Boyd)) spend there time navigating the human body to save the Soviet scientist with an industrial strength raygun–so 50s!
There is so much to talk about with this film, but this is a blog not a book. Something that struck me right away was the opening credits. They’re a colorful, analog exploration into the inner world of the human mind thanks to the groundbreaking technological discoveries that undergird the plot. It’s interesting how this film plays off the idea of inner space versus the US space program that framed much of the 1960s popular obsession with tech. And the more I research computing, this decade seems to be as amazing as everyone claims in regards to tehcnology—the internet virtual reality, graphic user interfaces, etc. And while I’m the first one to try and resist the fetishizing the 60s, it’s hard to refute history. Fantastic Voyage Opening Credits from Jim Groom on Vimeo.
The credits for Fantastic Voyage were fascinating to me because they highlight this fetish of tech in the 1960s, but also highlight the notion of how bodily it all is by using the Soviet Scientist’s brain as the immediate focus. I found this post from the Art of the Title Tumblr with animated GIFs of the credits, which beautifully feature Richard Kuhn’s amazing work. I’d much rather see David Cronenberg remake Fantastic Voyage rather than James Cameron, bring back the new flesh!
Yeah! What an exciting, bold movie.
I saw it when I was a kid, and those white blood cells scared the heck out of me.
Looking at it now, what a manic thing it is, racing along that Cold War spy axis, then leaping into big mad science, ending up as… something like a monster movie.
Yeah, that’s a good point, once it comes to the white blood cells and antibodies it is akin to a 50s/60s monster movie. Good call, and there is also a real strong 60s psychedelic motif running through the film, especially when they enter the bloodstream. It is really an awesome films, and the manic registers makes for some real fun 😉