Joe Dante’s modus operandi is pretty simple: take a genre cinema staple from the mid 20th century, add some irreverent self-awareness, and juice the whole thing up with Looney Tunes-inspired energy. It’s also frequently been successful, with The Howling, The ‘Burbs and the two Gremlins movies entertaining audiences up till today. But my first experience with Dante - and a movie of which I’ve had weird memories ever since childhood - was Innerspace, the director’s take on the shrinking movie (and let’s face it: Fantastic Voyage).
Shrinking movies are kind of silly to begin with, so Innerspace has its comedy work cut out for it. Though the film mines its premise for tons of clever and often ridiculous ideas, its comedy comes from its cast. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s only there to drive some first-rate visual effects and comedic performances, led by the straight-man-funny-man duo of two actors underrated in their own ways, Dennis Quaid and Martin Short.
Dennis Quaid’s former fighter pilot Tuck Pendleton is introduced drunk, berating the United States military to their faces and disappointing his girlfriend Lydia (an underutilised Meg Ryan, who would later marry and then unmarry Quaid in real life). The film gets to the business of shrinking him pretty quickly, with little exposition, dropping him in his tiny submersible pod for the rest of the film. As the straight man, Quaid spends the vast majority of the movie completely disconnected from his other cast members in a manner even more alienating than motion capture. That’s hard to do, but Quaid - the slightly more vanilla amalgam of Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner - does sterling work to keep it real. But it’s when Tiny Dennis Quaid gets injected into Normal-Sized Martin Short that Innerspace really kicks off.
There’s Looney Tunes all through this movie, starting with a litany of Bugs Bunny references towards the top of the film. But the influence shines the most through Martin Short’s hapless, hyperkinetic physical comedy. Short demonstrates his status as his era’s best comedy star who never really headlined his own movie. As Short’s character gets increasingly freaked out by the voice in his head, he’s completely hilarious, delivering dialogue and pratfalls alike with nuanced timing and energy. There's something charming and inherently likeable about Short's physicality and control that just makes him a joy to watch.
Innerspace’s surprisingly traditional comedy-duo setup for its heroes is mirrored by some truly odd villains. Piling strangeness on top of strangenss, the supporting cast is a collection of characters so weird, they threaten to steal the show from the good guys. Vernon Wells’ Terminator-inspired cyborg assassin says nothing but gets one of the film’s best visual gags. Robert Picardo has a sizeable part as the Cowboy, a villain whose role in the story isn’t particularly clear, but who is damned entertaining to watch, full of hard-dancing, Cuban-smoking, naked-champagne-guzzling sleaze. Perhaps strangest of all is Kevin McCarthy as the big (later little) bad, a Colonel Sanders type introduced in the back of a refrigerated meat truck smoking a cigar and rambling about the Alaskan gold rush. There’s a lot of weird shit on the fringe of Innerspace, that’s for sure.
It’s also worth mentioning that ILM’s Oscar-winning visual effects are not just varied and terrific, but really goddamned gross. I rewatched the film, and wrote this article, while down with a 103-degree fever and flu, and watching the inside of a human body on screen made me only too aware of my own. Innerspace beautifully depicts cells and organs with practical and optical effects, using a range of techniques to achieve a pretty seamless result. To a tiny human, the interior of the body is a series of grand, cavernous caves and tunnels, and though Innerspace has other goals besides inspiring awe, it still manages to pull that off as well. The shrunken bad guys of the film’s third act don’t fare quite as well, using some uncanny-valley forced-perspective tricks, but when we’re inside the body, it’s like a really beautiful, really gross submarine movie.
Innerspace is kind of a mish-mash of genres, with its sci-fi comedy joined by awkward romance and conspiracy thriller in the way that many similarly overstuffed ‘80s genre flicks were. It’s trying to be a lot of things, but happily, it recognises that its biggest drawcard is its comedy. Comfortably sitting with its director’s other classic genre entertainment, Innerspace is one of those movies that almost feels like it shouldn’t work, but by virtue of commitment to a bit and some great comedic acting, totally does.