“Fantastic Voyage” (1966)
Has anything given science fiction a worse reputation than the movies? Beyond the obvious necessity of conceiving original ideas to stimulate a movie audience (speaking in general non-genre specific terms), American science fiction cinema seems to be in a constant state of panic as to what might find favor with the audience, who, as evidenced by the resultant film offerings, are clearly regarded as a gaggle of semi-literates (though their disposable money nonetheless endears them to the more certifiably primitive studio thinkers), so instead of a basis in profound philosophical inquiries, the steady diet of big screen SF is invested in prosthetic aliens, gleaming model saucers and rockets, styrofoam planetary landscapes and an overly generous number of buxom screaming women. The lurid covers of vintage SF pulp magazines seem to be the level of satisfaction at which the major studios are willing to regard the genre; a gaudy gallery of marauding aliens, death rays and conical bosoms significantly pointing at the heavens. For the most part (the British, for some reason- perhaps due, in no small part, to the influence of the BBC teleplays of Nigel Neale -generally take a more cerebrally mature approach to the genre) the science fiction film has emerged as a novelty genre in which complex human experience is entirely secondary to intellectually unwholesome spectacle.
Richard Fleischer’s 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage” immediately dispenses with any temptation to exploit such mundane celestial tomfoolery by cleverly turning the subject of the film inward, inside the human body. However, to accomplish this task, the film concedes to an alternate genre- the hugely prolific espionage thrillers of the 1960’s -for the equally mundane motivations for its narrative explorations: the secretive arrival in America of Iron Curtain scientist Jan Benes (Jean Del Val) resulting in an assassination attempt which leaves the defector in a comatose state, suffering a blot clot to the brain which is inoperable by normal means, but fortunately, in one of those astonishing examples of unlikely coincidence which exist only in the movies, American scientists have invented a process of miniaturization (and just happen to have a nuclear powered submarine- the Proteus -and crew waiting for such an emergency situation). The situation is given an additional coincidental immediacy as Benes has been spirited from the East specifically because he is the only scientist who understands how to maintain the miniaturization effect beyond a problematic sixty minute mark; a bit of screenwriter hokum which, at least, masquerades the fact that the fate of an anonymous Eastern bloc scientist is unlikely to create ripples of suspense, instead substituting the element of time in which the main characters must complete their task. (This time element not being intrinsic to any direct danger to the miniaturized crew- that will be afforded by the hoariest of espionage concepts: the saboteur -but the film rather ingeniously always makes it feel that way.)
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