Jun 29, 2007

DVD Review: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

A jetliner lands at night, and is met by a convoy of federal agents. The agents take charge of a high level defector and whisk him away as quickly as possible. But not fast enough. The opposition ambushes the convoy, resulting in an intense shootout. The injured defector is taken to a secret base. Moments later, an American agent is summoned to the same base. His limousine sinks into the ground on a hidden hydraulic lift, taking him into a sprawling underground headquarters to rival some of Ken Adam’s similar sets. There, he meets his superior, who gives him an impossible mission...

Fantastic Voyage is so well known for being an effects-driven sci-fi spectacle that it’s easy to forget that it’s also a spy movie! But the fact that it is really emphasizes the ubiquity of the genre in the 1960s. You want to make a movie about a journey inside the human body; what framework do you use? In the original Bond Age, at the height of the Cold War, the answer was obvious: a spy movie. (According to commentator and film/music historian Jeff Bond, the original plan was to make it a Victorian-set Jules Verne type adventure. But by the time cameras were ready to roll, that wasn’t nearly as hot a genre as spies.)

Assignment K’s Stephen Boyd plays secret agent, com-munications expert and former Navy frogman Grant. He’s the one who got the defector, Benes, out (presumably from behind the Iron Curtain, though specific countries aren’t mentioned), and now his boss, General Carter (Edmond O'Brien), wants him to go along as security on a fantastic scientific expedition to save the man’s life. You see, Benes has vital scientific knowledge about miniaturization that he wants to share with America. The opposition would rather see him die than allow that to happen.

American scientists have come far enough on their own in the field that they can reduce people and objects to an infinitesimal size for a period of one hour. The only way to save Benes’s life is to shrink a submarine and crew and inject them into his bloodstream, enabling them to use a laser to clear a critical clot in the brain. But the General fears there may be a saboteur amidst the crew, and he wants Grant to go along to ensure that nothing goes wrong with the operation. The rest of the crew includes Arthur Kennedy as brain surgeon Dr. Duval and spy veterans Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasance as Duval’s technician and a circulatory specialist-cum-navigator, respectively. The movie plays miniaturization completely straight, and except for Grant whining "But I don’t wanna be miniaturized!" right at first, everyone seems pretty nonplussed about the whole situation.

After all the spy movie set-up, they don’t actually get inside the human body until forty minutes into the movie. Then it becomes more of a straightforward science fiction film, wherein the steadfast crew evade antibodies, take an unplanned detour through a fistula, and find their way back through the dangerous rapids of the heart. At one point they run out of oxygen, and need to harvest some from the lungs. This requires Grant’s frogman skills, and it requires Raquel to finally strip down to a more body-hugging jumpsuit. But all the while the "who’s the saboteur?" spy plot remains, a situation similar to Ice Station Zebra. (It’s really not very hard to guess.)

The special effects are actually very impressive for their era, some even by today’s standards. The movie looks great, with fantastic art direction by Dale Hennesy and Jack Martin Smith. All the sets (full-size and miniature) are terrific, from the cavernous subterranean base with little golf carts zipping around it to the surface of the lung. Richard Kuhn’s opening titles are also quite impressive and very modern, and probably inspired Maurice Binder’s Billion Dollar Brain credits to some extent. None of the performances really stand out, but it’s not a movie about performances. (Stephen Boyd gets points for being tolerable, though, something he couldn’t manage in The Oscar with Elke Sommer.)

Fox’s new DVD of Fantastic Voyage boasts a really amazing transfer. This movie looks great, as if it were just made this year! Fox usually has good transfers, but this one really stands out. There are some nice extras, too. The behind-the-scenes featurette is more of an appreciation than a making-of, with modern-day special effects artists praising the film’s visual trickery and pointing out what works and what doesn’t. Film Score Monthly’s Jeff Bond contributes an informative commentary track full of interesting trivia. He tells us that according to the movie’s press materials, it was supposed to take place in 1997, but there would be no way to know that from what’s on screen, as the cars and plane at the beginning are all very mid-Sixties. Best of all is an isolated score track featuring Leonard Rosenman’s excellent music and commentary on it (during the silent parts) with Bond, John Burlingame and Nick Redman.

Fantastic Voyage certainly isn’t a traditional spy movie, but it serves as a reminder of how popular the genre was in the Sixties and how varied it could be. It will probably be of more interest to sci-fi fans than spy fans, but this new release (in Fox’s typically excellent packaging featuring original poster art) is good enough that it’s certainly worth a rent for any aficionado of Sixties cinema.

No comments: