Since this blog is about my opinions I recently realised that one area I haven’t really commented on much is entertainment media. This is because it’s really hard to say anything original; not least of all because someone working full time on this sort of thing already says it. It’s also because all I can do is give my opinion, which may or may do justice to the matter since I don’t claim to be an expert on, well anything. But at least I’m not afraid to voice my opinion, even if it’s unpopular.
See here goes with hopefully the first of many of my opinions on something that isn’t our fascist governments.
Overview of the film
Fantastic Voyage is a 1966 science fiction film and if you want any more general summations you can check out the Wikipedia page for it.
I remember seeing this film when I was very young, though I can’t remember exactly my age. At the time, I had no idea it was as old as it was. When I first saw it FV was already 20 years old, but in the 80s I really don’t think the special effects could be criticised too much. I was totally captivated and my imagination was inspired.
The film opens with CIA agent Grant, played by Stephen Boyd, disembarking a plane with an old guy. The old guy is Benes (pronounced Benesh) and Grant is delivering him back to the United States after getting the defector out from Soviet Russia – and who can blame anyone for wanting to leave there; it’s like Everton FC, only with Everton the torture only lasts 90 minutes and the occupants can at least remember being useful. Grant leaves Benes in the “safe” hands of fellow agents after a wordless man-hug initiated by the former. In the book based on this film a lot of backstory is given: Grant went to great personal risk (as per his job as a secret agent) to get Benes out from behind the Iron Curtain, and the two men exchange some words on the final flight into America, on board a plane so rickety and shed-like it will later be used as the blueprint for shuttles in Star Trek. Except this plane actually lands safely.
We soon see the CIA motorcade being ambushed by “the other side” who will be unnamed in the entire film, although there’s no doubt who the two Powers at work really are. The ambush is rather brief on screen and doesn’t really carry the sense of excitement or danger presented in the novel. In the novel one of the enemy agents happily sacrifices himself just to collide with one of the limousines, but in the film we see Benes bump his head and get escorted to another car which promptly speeds off.
As this point I should mention that the film is not based on the novel. The producers wanted to give the film some scientific credibility and approached the famous Isaac Asimov to write a novel based on the script. Asimov pointed out just how ridiculous the script was as regards scientific credibility and also some very reasonable plot holes, which we’ll get onto later. Asimov got permission to write his own take on the story which deviates from the film in some noticeable ways, especially towards the end. The book is only 186 pages long and I’d strongly recommend giving it a read. The chapters flow naturally and quickly into each other with each scene essential and fascinating, even minimalist to the exclusive of anything that doesn’t advance the plot.
Back to the movie and next up are the opening credits being typed over images of Benes in hospital being treated by doctors. The credits don’t have music, something I’ll comment on soon, but rather a series of sound effects to represent Benes’s vital signs and medical equipment at work, but they are presented in such a way as to almost be musical accompaniment, at the same time unnerving and tense.
Next, we are back in a limousine seeing Grant being escorted somewhere. He knows as much about it as we do. His escorts refuse to give him any details and finally the car stops in a back-alley and Grant is told to wait inside as the other men get out. Next moment the car sinks underground and comes to a stop as a guy in military police uniform pulls up in a buggy. Grant hops in and is driven around a bit. This scene establishes a huge underground government complex with hundreds of employees, and everywhere the initials CMDF are plastered. A General Carter finally meets Grant and explains that this organisation is the Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces, a super-secret organisation with a technology that can reduce any object, living or not, to any size. Grant naturally has a hard time believing this, but his doubt only lasts a few seconds as he can tell that Carter is dead serious.
Miniaturisation has featured in science fiction almost since the genre began. It’s a really interesting idea and also terrifying at the same time. If you actually think about what it would be like to be shrunk to such a size that the entire world you know changes, the rules go out the window – the entire universe that you evolved to deal with isn’t the same, and the challenges and enemies you face are of an order and nature that quite frankly are beyond what can be imagined, then you can see why sci-fi has gotten such good purchase out the idea. The problem is, like most science fiction, how do you present it in a realistic and plausible way, if you bother to do so? If it’s a film like Inner Space which isn’t really meant to be taken seriously then it doesn’t matter. But if you’re going to call your work science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, and want to have some suspense, it has to have some scientific credibility. For example in Star Trek they have “warp drive” because faster-than-light travel is impossible. That isn’t to say that you always have to explain everything. In Star Wars, technology is never explained, with the artefacts and spaceships just happening, like how your imaginary games as a child might work: million ton starships just float and weave across the planet without any apparent thrusters or engines, like gravity doesn’t apply to them. Tiny fighters cross hundreds of light-years by themselves. It doesn’t matter in Star Wars because, let’s face it, it’s just a fantasy drama which happens to be set in space. They don’t bother to explain anything because they don’t care and similarly we as the audience are told that it doesn’t matter. It’s just for fun. Star Trek always took itself far more seriously which turned out to be a curse just as much as a blessing.
In Fantastic Voyage (the film) the science behind miniaturisation isn’t explained, and I think it’s better off for it. In the book adaptation, Doctor Michaels explains that “hyperspace” can be manipulated (probably with frikkin “lasers”) and despite it seeming not to make sense, the maths works. In the book we are given about as much explanation as we need or could understand, just like our protagonist. In the film, because the story is a race against time, no scientific explanation is given and I don’t think it affects the movie. We are told it works and we see it happen, and that’s enough. Of course, if I was being totally critical, I don’t think it’s possible. At all. The idea of hyperspace, of another dimension being manipulated through the laws of physics to alter an object so that all its dimensions change, as if it were superimposed over this reality – is interesting. It’s like taking a photograph or hologram of something, shrinking it, then bringing it to life in its new form in this world. It’s still “itself” but in a different “phase” of reality if you will, co-existing with this one. At least that’s how I read the explanation in the book but I admit that was several Pinio Grigios ago.
Grant is taken to a briefing where we meet the rest of the cast. Obviously I’ve got to mention the magnificent Raquel Welch here. Her presence in this movie is so well known, despite being a caricature of fictional female helplessness, that a Google search for images of Fantastic Voyage yields, as the third choice, a picture of her sitting naked (alas cross-legged) in beauty makeup. Even the DVD copy I own has a thumbnail of her on the side, a large picture of her on the cover and even larger one on the back! I’m not complaining per se; she was a rather fine looking woman, and still is if you like that sort of thing, but the movie is not about her. It’s not even a tiny bit about her! The book does much more justice to the character of Cora Peterson, but even before Grant (and we) are introduced to her in the film, we have Doctor Reid complaining to the neurosurgeon Doctor Duval that “a woman has no place on a mission of this importance!” Ah, God bless the 60s.
Captain Bill Owens is introduced as pilot of an experimental submarine (do you see where this is going?), and Doctor Michaels (played by the English Donald Pleasence – do you see where this is going?) starts the briefing. What we’ve already been told is that Benes has a clot in his brain and the only way to reach it is via the arterial system. Carter told Grant earlier that the plan is to shrink a submarine and surgical team to microscopic level and inject them into Benes’s body. Doctor Michaels now explains they’ll be injected into the carotid artery where they’ll make their way to the brain, dissolve the clot with a frikkin laser, and return via the venous system where they’ll be removed from the jugular vein. Simple as that, eh? They only have to: avoid turbulence, for example going through heart, avoid white cells, not get attacked by antibodies, and be out within 60 minutes or they’ll grow to normal size inside Benes.
Miss Cora Peterson, Doctor Duval’s assistance, is going along anyway because he said so. And because this movie has to live up to titillating trailer artwork.
Grant doesn’t really get the choice to back out or the chance to stop and think. The crew are ushered to the sterilisation section where we see them in skin-tight white swim suits, which are slightly more flattering on Raquel Welch than some of the male occupants.
The next scene shows up the vessel we’ll be making this adventure in: the Proteus, a small bubble-topped submarine sitting on what is either the floor section of the miniaturiser, or a prototype for the Blockbusters’s screen. Inside the sub, Captain Owens explains that the sub is powered by a microscopic radioactive particle, or rather it will be once it’s miniaturised. This particle will also allow them to be tracked from the outside.
Now the four-stage miniaturisation job begins. Some of these effects look dated, even today, and some of them are passable. I have mixed feelings about a modern remake of this film, but one of the massive pros in making a new version would be what special effects today could do with this concept. The thought of it really excites me, even if Ronald Emmerich directs it. My problem with “phase one” of the miniaturising is that we don’t get to see a lot of the shrinking. The normal-size ship begins to shrink, then the next time we see it it’s the size of a matchbox. It would’ve been nice to see more external shots. By comparison, in “phase four”, after the shrunken Proteus (about an inch in length) is put into a huge hypodermic which is then also shrunk, the exterior shot of the hypodermic is much finer and smoother and we have a good few seconds of seeing miniaturisation in action.
Finally the already tiny Proteus inside the container is reduced so that the huge hypodermic is now the size of a regular one, and the crew is informed that they “are at full reduction.” One of the interesting things in this film is that communication is only possible via wireless, and honestly I think it’s a superb touch. It really gives the sense of being out of touch with the real world and disconnected, with only Morse code tones for external help. In the book it’s explained that this is the only sort of communication that can cross the “miniaturisation gap”, and given that we’ve previously seen video calling in this film, I think it would’ve been worth mentioning here too.
Via some delicate contraption the hypodermic is taken to the operating room and injected into Benes’s neck. At over 36 minutes into the film we finally hear incidental music for the first time. Leonard Rosenman, who also scored Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, deliberately wrote no music for the film until this point, and it’s an unusual but highly effective choice. In my opinion the music for this film is perfect. It’s dramatic and often abrasive and from a modern perspective perhaps dated. If the film is (ever) greenlit to be recreated in the near future, I can’t imagine it having a score anything like this. But that doesn’t mean it’s corny, cheesy or old-fashioned. The score is one of suspense and threat all the way through. Even the main theme theme itself, heard for the first time as the crew enters the human body (all the time being one of wonder and awe), has an ominous undertone to it. Nothing about this film, which the music reflects so well, says “this is just an exciting trip! Let’s relax and enjoy it!” There isn’t a single relaxing moment in this adventure, to the credit of the film once it finally gets going after an admittedly slow start. The music mirrors this wonderfully in my opinion.
The Proteus crew encounters a seemingly endless sea of red with shapeless balloons streaming by. The effects are certainly a great attempt at presenting the human blood stream from within, albeit lacking in anything resembling reality. Asimov explains it best in the book where he says that if you were the size of a microbe, the walls of the artery would be miles off to your eyes, and the red blood cells (erythrocytes) would be huge compared to you. Also, it’s only oxygenated (or deoxygenated) erythrocytes that given blood its colour. The rest of the blood is made up of plasma, platelets and other types of cells. I’m not a doctor, despite what I told my first girlfriend, but if you were microscopic size I’d have thought the blood would actually be quite transparent given its straw colour. It’s not a problem for me as far as the story goes, but it’s one of those things I’d love to see remastered with modern day effects, not to improve the movie itself, but as a fan of science I like to see the universe presented to me in realistic ways. That is after all one of the reasons I loved this movie so much in my life and why I can keep coming back to watch it every few years – because the concept is great, and seeing the human body (which has always fascinated me) shown in this way should be awe-inspiring for anyone. To a modern audience this aspect of the film would certainly be lost, because our standards for what we accept of realism are so high that special effects have to be impeccable to fool our eyes, and even then the best CGI doesn’t always get it right.
There is one effect I must mention; it’s so short but fantastic. As the Proteus is being injected into the carotid artery we see the ship hurtling towards the end of the syringe. It looks a vast distance off with only a red glow growing menacingly towards them. It’s cool. But as they pass into the bloodstream the Proteus emerges from the end of the syringe itself, and you can clearly see the shape of the needle and how it’s so wide compared to the Proteus. It’s a little shot but it really establishes how tiny they are.
There’s some dialogue where Doctor Duval waxes lyrically about the wonder of the human body and it’s clear he is a man of god. Michaels on the other hand, being a damn dirty atheist, merely points out that end-to-end the circulatory system is a hundred-thousand miles long. Grant just looks on like the dumb college football jock he’s initially made out to be in the novelisation.
Before long though there’s trouble a-brewing. Despite the woman not driving, the Proteus starts to veer towards the arterial wall and Owens reports that it’s unresponsive. It seems that damage to Benes caused the carotid artery and jugular vein in the neck together into something called a fistula. (I typed “fistula” into Google and…let’s just say that whilst what I got back was related to the human body, I don’t think it’s the cardiovascular anomaly the film writers had in mind…) The micro fistula caused a whirlpool in the bloodstream and the Proteus, having been sent out of control, smashes through the wall of the artery into the vein and can’t go back.
The mission is now in failure: they can’t go back into the artery and they can’t reach the clot from the venous system, and continuing on in the direction of the flow would take them to the superior vena cava which, as we all know, ends in the penis. But before then it goes through the heart, and that would smash the tiny Proteus in a million pieces.
This is where the first major plot hole appears: it’s never explained why, since they were planning to extract them from the jugular at the end of the mission anyway, they can’t just extract them now…and re-inject them into the carotid artery at a point beyond the fistula! It’s a shame this isn’t addressed in the film, or the book, because it’s so obvious a solution the story is weaker for failing to acknowledge it. If there were a particular reason why they had to be injected into a very particular place, fine. But that’s never stated. Absolutely no thought is given to taking them out and just putting them back in. It seems like a no-brainer to me. They should have said that the stress endured by the craft during, say, injection, is so great that it can’t be repeated due to micro-fractures in the hull, or something.
Anyway, since the scientific and medical geniusesss….genia…genies….people aren’t as smart as me we’re left with the only logical solution: stop Benes’s heart long enough for the Proteus to get through the right atrium, pass through the right ventricle and exit the semi-lunar valve. In true Hollywood style, the heart can only be stopped for exactly 60 seconds, but it will take 57 seconds for the Proteus’s dash, leaving only…three… seconds to revive Benes. These scenes are well done. The music is gripping as the technical staff in CMDF witness the ship moving closer, ever closer, to the heart itself. Perhaps what works for me in this movie, and of course this is just my opinion, is that the human body, our body, our ally – is actually the nemesis. We get to see just how inhospitable the human body is for something that doesn’t belong in it (well, not without a lot of lube anyway). The Proteus has become the bacteria that doesn’t belong and is afforded no special dispensation by a mindless environment that’s spent millions of years adapting itself to kill such things.
They enter the valve and the heart just dies in the arms tonight. Painfully slowly, the Proteus glides through the huge chambers as the seconds tick away all too quickly. They approach the frozen semi-lunar valve and the Proteus speeds towards the huge gaping hole, (reminiscent of some of the images I got back from my Google “fistula” search.)
In the longest three seconds of movie history, Benes’s heart is revived in time and the Proteus, now in the pulmonary artery, continues on its way to the lungs. The arterial channel becomes narrower as they enter a capillary, one of the millions which pass within diffusion distance of the alveoli. Sure enough, before their very eyes, the deoxygenated erythrocytes (all cells in this film are called corpuscles) change from blue to red. This is a bit of a Hollywood touch keeping in line with the popular (though incorrect) notion that deoxygenated blood is blue and oxygenated is red. Of course, the former is simply a dark red and the latter scarlet.
Dr. Duval calls cell oxygenation one of the miracles of the universe, to which the unimpressed atheist Michaels retorts that’s it hardly a miracle and just “a simply exchange of gases…the end result of 400 million years of evolution.” I can get the film-makers wanting to stress the point that Michaels is an atheist and doesn’t buy Duval’s superstitious ramblings, but did they have to make him such a bore? I mean, atheist or not, you’re inside the human body seeing cellular oxygenation in action! Duval incredulously replies “you can’t believe that all that is accidental? That there isn’t a creative intelligence at work?” I was a Christian growing up and evolution was synonymous with “spawn of the devil” to me. It was so counter-intuitive I couldn’t believe how anyone, save through an act of sheer will, could bring themselves to believe that the incredible complexity in life was accidental, and how it all just works despite a billion intricacies. I admit, it is almost unfathomable to the ignorant. Now, the human body is an incredible machine, but it’s far from perfect. If I were omnipotent and omniscient, the human body would not be the apex of my creative ability, at least not on the inside anyway… For all the misconceptions and apparent inplausibilities, evolution of man is a fact as undeniable as heliocentrism or gravity. You can say that God got the ball rolling if you want, but it’s really impossible to argue for divine guidance given the fact of common descent and so many obvious design flaws in the human body.
Unfortunately Dr. Michaels doesn’t get to give us his response, as a warning alarm on the sub goes off. Captain Owens informs the crew that air pressure in the tanks is dropping, which Grant confirms. In the novelisation it was the breathable air the crew is losing but in the movie their breathable air isn’t the problem but presumably the air pressure to maintain ballast. Grant suggests that since they are so close to the lungs they use a snorkel to absorb air and replenish their supply. It’s dangerous but they have no choice. Because of the risk of missing the mark and exploding the tanks, Owens suggests everyone leaves the sub but him, leading to a slightly extended shot of Miss Peterson unzipping her onesie.
Before this however, as they prepare to depart, Grant notices the laser detached from its stand, partially unfastened, and obviously jarred by the action of the whirlpool. Cora swears she tied it down securely but Michaels and Grant exchange dubious looks.
Back to the air refuel job, and Asimov noticed the problem with this story element immediately: the air molecules in the alveoli are normal size – there is no way the miniaturised crew could breathe them. In the same way the ballast wouldn’t work either, if they could even get the huge molecules into the tanks in the first place. Asimov got around this by having a tiny miniaturiser on board the sub to shrink the air as it entered the snorkel, but in the film this whole aspect is ignored.
Unable to get a stable footing from the capillary side of the alveoli wall, Grant enters the air chamber itself with a safety line tied to the sub by Duval. But just as the Proteus’s tanks achieve capacity the safety line suddenly snaps and Grant is sent hurtling off out of sight. During the breathing lull he finally comes to rest on the floor of the alveolus and quickly scrambles his way back out. The alveolus is obviously a set, but it’s done quite well. No one knows what one looks like from the inside anyway but they imagine it well.
In the CMDF control room, Carter and Reid note the delay near the lungs and the passage of time. Grant was in too much of a rush to inform them via wireless but he does so now, then we get a shot of the Proteus cruising through a long, wide and shallow space of vivid colours – the pleural cavity. They’re now between the lungs and the wall of the chest.
Duval examines the laser and determines that it’s irreparable due to a broken trigger wire, but Grant suggests that they can cannibalise the wireless for the replacement wire (somewhat ironic). Of course, this will put them out of contact with the control tower, though they’ll still be traceable due to the radioactive fuel. As Duval observes, it’s either the wireless or Benes’s life. It’s not pleasant, but the choice seems clear.
As Duval and Cora get to work on the laser, Grant intimates to Dr. Michaels that there must be a saboteur onboard: the laser mysteriously unfastening itself and Grant’s safety line snapping all by itself. The logical choice is Duval but Dr. Michaels, despite their personal disagreements, believes that although Duval is “under a cloud” he is also dedicated to his profession. The conversation ends with Michaels essentially talking Grant down, and Owens shouts down from the bubble that the sub is approaching something. Michaels explains it’s reticular fibres lining a lymphatic duct. Grant, as it happens, has never heard of any other system apart from the circulatory system (which he takes to be the blood), although the lymphatic system is a part of the circulatory system.
They enter the lymphatic node, one of many situated in specific areas of the human body most noticeably under the jaw, armpits and the groin area. In what is apparently a redress of the heart set only with giant strings of snot, the Proteus makes its way through the node. (Funnily enough, as a kid I misheard “node” as “nose” and though the reticular fibres in this scene were actually huge snot strings.) The Proteus starts to receive several bumps now due to turbulence from outside. Grant opines that “it’s like someone’s declared war” to which Michaels responds “that’s exactly what it is”; the lymphatic system is a vital part of the immune response and outside the Proteus antibodies are swarming over bacteria or any invader to the system. The effects here aren’t great, but it was the 60s. Having said that, despite being inaccurate they illustrate how antibodies essentially work: locking onto receptor patterns (antigens) of foreign objects and inhibiting vital functions or, if there are enough antibodies, essentially crushing them. This is a nice bit of foreshadowing and explanation which occurs naturally in the story. It will pay off soon.
Owens observes that the reticular fibres, as well as slowing them down, might clog the intake vents of the sub and render it immobile. Either way, the trip is taking too long and Duval says they’ll never make it to the clot as this rate. Grant asks if there’s an alternative route but Michaels immediately dismisses the suggestion. Duval insists that there is though: they can head to the inner ear and from there make their way to the injury site. Sounds simple enough, but Michaels explains that whilst in the ear any noise from the outside world would have a disastrous effect on them, possible destructive and fatal. They can’t inform the control tower of their intentions but the outside operatives should notice immediately the change of direction and act accordingly.
As it happens, in the control tower news of the change of course comes through and far from being surprised it seems the crew have already figured out the Proteus couldn’t make it in time and that the inner ear was their only chance. Reid heads to the intercom and announces to the operating theatre that absolute silence must be maintained whilst the Proteus is in the ear.
Another establishing shot as the Proteus floats through the inner ear, and again it’s a well-designed and realistic set. Some obvious re-uses aside, the producers do a good job making each area unlike any other. The lighting here is reduced and the area dark with lovely colours. Unfortunately, no sooner is the Proteus halfway through than it starts to drop slowly to the surface below. Sure enough, as Owens informs the crew, those reticular fibres have indeed clogged the vents and propulsion is impossible. Grant does the only thing he can do: put on a suit and try to unclog the vents.
In the operating theatre outside, the medical staff stand quietly and the CMDF control tower can only watch as the blip representing the Proteus on their tracking screens remains motionless.
It finally dawns on the rest of the Proteus crew that it would be faster if they all got off their asses and helped Grant, so they do – all except Duval who wants to remain behind to fix the laser, a statement that elicits a brief but very suspicious scowl from Dr. Michaels.
The tension here is good. We cut back and forth behind the inner ear, quiet and peaceful as the crew very slowly manage to unclog the vents, and the operating theatre. It’s getting anxious outside though, and the chief attending’s forehead is covered in sweat. Seeing this, one of the nurses (one with a vagina of course) gently picks up a towel from the nearby table, dragging a pair of scissors with it, which promptly drop to the floor in a loud clatter…
In the ear the world is turned upside down. The Proteus lurches up and down, side to side, and the crew are sent flying off in different directions. Cora is sent hurtling down towards Hensen’s Cells where she gets entwined in fibres. The vibrations finally abate and Michaels warns Grant that Cora is damaging the fibres and will be considered a threat by antibodies. They start out after her but the pressure is too great for Michaels who has to turn back. Being a frogman Grant carries on and reaches the panicking Cora who is well aware of the danger she’s in. Grant frees her and they start back to the Proteus just as antibodies show up.
In a sequence which gives me scientific misgivings, the antibodies follow the trail and chase the two humans back to the sub, but the hatch takes time to open during which the antibodies attack Cora and begin to bind to her. (Who can blame them?) Grant gets her inside the hatch but she is being choked and can’t breathe. The half-empty hatch is opened anyway as the other men pull her out, lay her down on the floor and start frantically grasping at her skin-tight suit to rip off the antibodies. The “crystallised” antibodies are ripped off and Cora is ok. This is another exciting scene and it’s well done, but I’m not sure how accurate it is: antibodies are nothing more than protein chains and I don’t think they could bind to the shape of the human body, at least not in the way they attach themselves to bacteria. And although they can “tag” a body for immune response once it’s been identified as hostile, I don’t think it works with them literally following the “scent” like hunter-killers shown here. It’s probably not realistic but it is good drama. (Interestingly, the actors ripping the antibodies off Racquel Welch were so concerned with being chivalrous and respecting her body that they avoided her breasts. In the end they had to be ordered to ignore their manners for the shot!)
With 8 minutes remaining the sub eventually leaves the inner ear and is on final approach to the brain. Reid informs the operating personnel that all is clear and they brief a huge collective sigh of relief, with the clumsy nurse remarking “I almost died when the scissors dropped”, to which Reid puts his cigar to his mouth and gives a small fond smile. It’s only a little thing and it’s very underplayed but it adds character. If this was a modern Hollywood movie he’d make some cheesy punch line with the camera obviously framed to tell us “this is funny”, since modern movies find it hard to go even five minutes without destroying their own mood and tension with dreadful comic relief. Fantastic Voyage is not a comedy and it’s not played like a comedy – there are no “light relief” scenes to give the audience a chance to relax between action. There are lulls between the action but the tension is never released throughout the hour and this adds to the oppressive tone of the movie. It’s quite literally one crisis after another and despite some plot holes and scientific inaccuracies, the effects and disasters contribute logically to the story.
In what is undoubtedly a re-use of the pleural cavity and lymphatic duct passage, the outside of the Proteus now shows a long channel lined with black narrow threads, unmistakably nerves, leading to the brain. In the distance is a mass of nerves lining an opening or nexus of sorts, no doubt the entrance to the brain itself. I think this is supposed to be the subarachnoid cavity. The reason I like this is because despite the obvious effort to dress this effect up as the passage to the brain, it’s just in the background outside the window. It’s understated, because the effects (despite being a massive selling point for the film at the time) are only there to further the story, not the other way around. Do you hear that, George?
The only glitch here is that as the conversation continues before the window the entrance to the brain looms ever closer, until one close-up of Grant produces a continuity error of the sub being almost at the end of the channel, and right back at the start of it. Blame the editor.
The conversation going on here is whether Duval should test the laser before they reach the clot, since repairs are finished. Michaels insists that Duval test the laser before they waste their precious last few minutes getting to the clot, unloading, only to discover that it doesn’t work. The counter-argument from Duval is that he’s done all he can to fix it; if it doesn’t work there’s nothing he can do anyway, but if it does work there’s no way to know how long it will last, so every last joule of energy should be saved, which means testing it is wasteful. Both men make good arguments, and if I was on the crew I’d be highly tempted to side with Michaels since about now I’d be really panicking as the seconds tick by in this very dangerous confined space. But since there is still time left to perform the operation, even if the laser fails, Duval’s case is the stronger. Michaels and him end the argument quite heatedly with Michaels stating that as usual Duval just wants his own way.
Grant eyes them both curiously as we cut to the control tower where Reid remarks “just imagine, they’re in the human mind”, and the anatomical display in the background with the Proteus marked as entering the brain transitions to another establishing shot: the sub gliding through a dark region lined with what look like cobwebs, across which spots of light flash and jump. I really like this set too, because it’s probably the best that could’ve been done at the time. Another thing I like about this, and it’s true of almost all the sets actually, is that the blocking and camera work suggests vastness; you can’t really see a wall or edge to the environment which, at the Proteus’s scale, is how it would be. In the distance Duval points out the clot, the area of damage, a large black area which looks quite spooky. As Duval and Cora prepare to leave, Michaels says they can’t possibly operate and get out before time’s up, and instructs Owens to head to the removal point. Only six minutes remain, but it will take two to get to the removal point. Michaels warns that if they overstay they will deminiaturise in moments, growing large enough to endanger the brain after which white cells will destroy them. Owens continues the order to leave but Grant cuts his power and the Proteus slowly drops to the surface as the music ominously grows. Grant whispers “Dr. Duval, get the laser”, who doesn’t need telling twice. Michaels argues with Grant even as Duval and Cora leave the sub. Michaels flames at Grant, apparently having suddenly changed his mind about Duval, declaring him “an assassin, whose only motive is to kill Benes, and now you’ve made that possible.” Grant refutes this though, saying that he’s faced assassins before and Duval doesn’t fit the bill. He announces to Owens that he’s going to try and help the two surgeons and leaves the sub, leaving Michaels to quietly fume.
At the clot the laser works, and Duval starts to delicately slice away damaged tissue to relieve the pressure on the nerve. The operation goes well but time is ever running out. Back on board the Proteus doctor Michaels calls Owens’ attention to the escape hatch: fluid is leaking in. Owens comes to take a look but gets a spanner in the head for his troubles. Michaels was the saboteur all along! (He’s the English guy, how did you not see it coming?) He scrambles up to the bubble after restoring the power and starts the sub’s engine, speeding right for the nerve!
At the nerve, with the operation finished, the three look back and see the Proteus speeding towards them. This is another great model shot which captures distance and scale without limiting the environment in any way. Grant takes the laser from Duval and asks for full power as he fires at the Proteus and rips a hole along her hull. Out of the control the sub crashes into a nearby mass of (presumably) synapses and dendrites. It’d be hilarious is if this caused brain damage to Benes requiring another operation…
In the distance, white cells are spotted and Grant enters the hole in Proteus to rescue Michaels and Owens. In the ship the conscious Owens tells Grant what happened but the crash has jammed Michaels’s hands in the steering gear. Overhead through the glass dome a white cell slowly looms down on the Proteus, as Donald Pleasance really nails the panic and horror of a trapped man who knows he’s about to be slowly eaten. The white cell smashes through the glass and envelopes him. (The white cell covering Michaels’s head here were achieved essentially by soap-suds, and Donald Pleasance’s screams here are quite genuine!)
Grant and Owens exit the Proteus and join Duval and Cora as the Proteus is ingested. A couple of final shots from the laser kills one white cell, but the laser is fried…so Duval just throws it aside. Remember that for later…
Grant asks “you said there was a quick way out?” Actually, no one said there was a quick way out. Grant earlier asked “is there a quick way out?” but doesn’t get a reply as Cora points out the white cells. It’s a tiny glitch but I always noticed it. Duval does confirm that there is though: “we can follow the optic nerve to the corner of the eye.” And so they do, the music builds to a crescendo and we cut to the control room as the timer turns to zero. Time up. Game over, apparently. Carter says to Reid that they’ll have to remove them even though it means killing Benes. Reid proceeds to the operating theatre and orders the physicians to remove the Proteus immediately, and an emergency trepanation is about to be started until Carter suddenly commands them to stop. He reasons to Reid, in a wonderfully whispered and chilling manner, that if he was running out of time in there he’d abandon ship and get out the fastest possible way. Reid pieces it together for himself: the eye! He races to the operating theatre…
Meanwhile the three men and Raquel Welch are still swimming towards the eye. This is another scene well done; the music captures the other-worldliness wonderfully and the eerie score and sound effects reflect the organic environment they so desperately need to escape. They reach the eye and in another nicely understated scene we see them scrambling through an opening onto the roof of the eyeball; the effect is only about two seconds long but very realistic. It’s another example of how bigger and longer is not necessarily better.
In the operating theatre, Reid uses a super magnifying glass and sees four people in a drop of water. (And slowly, and surely, he draws his plans against them.) He calls for a glass slide and scoops them up. Despite the fact they’ve been growing all this time they are still not visible to the naked eye and this unspoken point proves (to me anyway) just how tiny they really have been. Reid carefully places the glass slide on the floor of the miniaturising chamber seen early and the music hangs on a note of suspense one last time…and then totally changes; for the first time in the entire film it now turns to one of hope and relief, and our protagonists become visible again. As Reid and the command staff watch on, four tiny people take form and revert to normal size. A silent nod from Reid to Carter is enough to convey the emotion of the moment between two military professionals. (Again, if this were remade today, Carter and Reid would be 30-something Calvin Klein models high-fiving each other and making inappropriate corny jokes to break up all the boring science stuff.)
An overhead shot of the four survivors ends the film as they’re joined by operations personnel and doctors all wanting to congratulate them on their fantastic voyage and safe return.
Unfortunately, everyone forgot about the injected saline from the original syringe, the discarded laser and oh yes, the frakking submarine which all remained inside Benes and would revert to normal size too, resulting, in Doctor Kelso’s words, of “a nasty case of…death”. Some claim that because the Proteus was digested, it was destroyed, and therefore wouldn’t revert to normal size. This is…err, wrong, to be polite. The ship was ingested, but the molecules and atoms that constituted it were miniaturised – they didn’t cease to exist. Given the whole premise of the film was the crew having 60 minutes, no longer, before they regrew, this is pretty glaring oversight. In his novel, Asimov got around this by having the crew tempt the white cell (which ingested the Proteus) into following them out through the eye too. Also, the physicians used as little saline as possible for the initial injection.
As regards the characters, none of them are particularly fleshed out but this is an adventure movie not a character-driven plot. With so little time and so much to get through, the film can’t afford divergences to let us see the mind and soul of Grant or Cora. The film also never explains why Michaels is the bad guy either. Again, in Asimov’s short version the characters are brought to life a lot better (albeit the dialogue is clunky) with Cora initially viewing Grant as just a dumb muscle man but coming to see that he has a brain indeed, is a good leader, and is obviously grateful for him saving her life a few times. Grant’s attraction to her is written with all the subtlety of a hammer in truth, and the men find it incredulous that a girl can be incredibly clever and also beautiful… “Instead of working as protégé for the best neurosurgeon on the planet, shouldn’t you be doing something worthwhile with your life and making the most of your important features, the physical ones of course – by, say, being a super-model or porn star?!” If this were a character arc like Battlestar Galactica, or a human story with a message which happens to have action, like Star Trek II, I’d criticise it. But it’s not.
Review: I try to be as objective as possible, but the truth is this was an all-time classic for me and a favourite ever since I can remember. For that reason, it’s hard to not inject a bit of fondness into a review, whereas someone else might watch this and think “you can see the strings on the antibodies! That’s crap!” and promptly go back to watching Big Brother.
As far as the story goes, apart from the obvious plot holes it’s a really tight script, with the only question marks over the pacing at the start – and some of the scene transitions feel dated. Some of the special effects are clearly lacking by today’s standards but many of the sets also stand up quite well. The attention to detail is definitely there, for the most part. The film also doesn’t ram medical jargon down our throats but says what needs to be said as if professionals were saying it. It also does a pretty good job getting all the necessary information to the viewer without bad exposition. The sexism of the time is pretty evident, with the lady needing to be rescued a few times and it being the woman to drop the scissors on the floor, and Reid even saying that because this mission is so important we don’t need a woman on board, someone who’ll probably just menstruate all over the sub anyway.
The plot holes and dated attitude to women drop the score a little, but I’ll judge every work of art against what it’s claiming to be. This was a huge blockbuster which took years to make, had some big names stars, and took itself seriously as a science fiction adventure thriller. It was incredibly ambitious, and most of the elements come together superbly. The problem for the writers was that the concept of miniaturisation is so hard to translate into true sci-fi because the rules of physics themselves stand in the way – there are literally too many problems to overcome so you either: a. forget the idea, b. scientifically rationalise every single thing even if only on a very hypothetical level, or c. do what you can do to make a good movie and ignore the rest. I think the FV producers chose c and succeeded.
I’m tempted to be more generous with one of my favourites, but it has some tough competition in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I’m going to give it 8/10. A true classic. I only hope that any modern remakes do the original justice.
28 September, 2013 at 8:33 pm
Good review. Last I heard, the remake plot concerned a familial relationship between doctor and patient (I think doctor supervising miniaturized sub in wife). Could get soapy. In the original, Duval tells Grant, regarding the white cells threatening Proteus: “… they’ll ingest the ship and everything in it.” Maybe they’re assuming the cell ingested the growing laser rifle, too? At least they tried. This is a very hopeful, energetic movie, done at a time when the US, and technology, could do no wrong (not trying to be political here, at all) — I get the irony. The movie has a card in its beginning which suggests that miniturization might exist someday. Then, I think people could believe that. The comment about “Calvin Klein” models is spot on.