Shrink Wrapped: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
This week sees the release of Ant-Man, the first shrinking film in quite some time. To celebrate the return of this odd genre we’re looking back at some of the best shrinking movies ever.
Isaac Asimov did not create Fantastic Voyage. It’s possible that you thought the 1966 movie was based on his book - for years I certainly did. Even at the time many people thought that the movie was based on Asimov’s work because his book - an adaptation of the script - came out well before the film. It turns out that Asimov, being one of the fastest writers in modern history, simply managed to get his book finished and released well before the film, which saw delays in post-production.
The movie is actually based on a story by Jerome Bixby (who wrote the original Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror) and Otto Klement, and that story was a Jules Verne throwback set in the 19th century. The movie took the concept - shrinking down to explore the space within a human - and put a Cold War spin on it, including imagining a world where both the US and the USSR have competing shrinking divisions in their militaries!
In the film a Soviet defector with important knowledge about shrinking is wounded when the CIA is extracting him from behind the Iron Curtain, leaving him comatose with a blood clot in his brain. The only way to save the man and get the info he has is to miniaturize a team of doctors within a sub and send them to his brain to destroy the clot with a big ass laser gun. The crew of the sub Proteus has only 60 minutes to do their job, as a flaw in the shrinking process forces miniaturized things to grow back to full size after an hour. While that should be plenty of time, things go wrong as soon as they enter the body and that’s before a hidden traitor among them starts sabotaging the mission.
Asmiov’s novelization is, technically, better than the movie - as a real scifi writer Asimov took it upon himself to fix the film’s science loopholes (they leave an entire fucking sub inside the defector - it should grow in size at the end of the film and explode him from the inside out. Asimov fixed this in the novel) - but the movie itself is the sort of delightfully batshit spectacle that is so fun it’s hard to worry about the flaws. The journey within the body is realized in a way that is both psychedelic - an early encounter with blood cells calls to mind 2001, which was still years away when this was released - and charmingly stagebound. The actors, including young Raquel Welch and a wonderfully unhinged Donald Pleasance (I’ll give you three guesses who the traitor is), are in wetsuits hanging on wires pretending to swim around inside veins, billowing lung tissue and amid the constantly firing neurons of a cave-like brain.
Revisiting Fantastic Voyage now, years since I last watched it, what really struck me was the film’s go-getter attitude about science and progress. The movie is filled with things that are intended to be state of the art but, half a century later, are so outdated as to make the whole thing prosaic. One military man calculates how fast the Proteus can get through the heart with a slide rule, while the opening credits are printed out by teletype with a ticking analog watch and spinning analog dials in the background. It reminds you that we got to the Moon using computers far less powerful than the phone you carry in your pocket - the 1960s can-do attitude towards tech is on display in every frame of the film.
James Cameron was playing with a remake of Fantastic Voyage for a while, but I can’t imagine how the movie works today. This is a film from a time when we thought it was important to put a man in a tin can and shoot him into space; today we do all that work with robots. A modern version of this film would have technicians remote piloting nanites, a dreadfully dull proposition that removes the human element. This is a movie about explorers and about wonder - a lot of the scenes involve characters being astonished at what they see - and we simply don’t have those same elements in our culture today. We may all be impressed by the images beamed back to us from Pluto this week, but it’s not the same without the human element, without the brave men and women going there, as opposed to sending robots to go there for us.