While I'm in Oslo, here's a short essay I did for the BSFA on the film "Fantastic Voyage".
Its many flaws notwithstanding, I've always greatly enjoyed this film. It may well have been the first piece of cinematic SF I encountered - if it wasn't Fantastic Voyage, then it would have been another guilty pleasure, George Pal's 1960 version of The Time Machine. Both films loomed large in my childhood and their occasional appearance on television was always a source of delight.
Fantastic Voyage was directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1966. The film embodies a wonderful premise: the US and the Soviet Union have developed secret miniaturisation technology, with the result that people and machines can be successfully shrunk to microscopic size for a period of exactly one hour. A defecting scientist, Benes, has developed the means to prolong the process, but after a failed assassination he develops an inoperable brain clot.
After an excellent title sequence, we are introduced to the pilot of the submarine who is tasked to convey his miniaturised colleagues to the site of the clot, where it can be burned away using a laser gun. Played by Stephen Boyd, the pilot knows nothing of the covert organisation behind the miniaturisation technology, but he quickly accepts the reality of it. We are then introduced to the crew of the submarine Proteus as they familarise themselves with the vessel and prepare to be shrunk and injected into the comatose Benes.
The film's slender plot hangs on the fact that the enemy may have planted a saboteur on the sub, intent on preventing the operation from being carried out successfully. Donald Pleasence, who plays the saboteur, may seem too obvious a choice, but in 1966 he was still a year away from playing Blofeld. It scarcely matters, in any case: the film's pleasures have little to do with the cold-war mechanics of the story (the characters are at best sketchy), and everything to do with the awesome burden of the surgical rescue mission, and the degree of seriousness with which the film handles its conceit.
A good part of Fantastic Voyage has already elapsed before the Proteus enters Benes. The top-secret CMDF HQ is as impressive an underground facility as Blofeld, or indeed any self-respecting Bond villain, could wish for, complete with electric carts and underground traffic cops. Once the crew are secured aboard their vessel, the miniaturisation process is completed and the submarine is injected into Benes' neck. The sequence of the craft rushing down the long metal tunnel of the hypodermic needle is particularly striking.
The rest of the film documents the crews' efforts to forge their way through Benes' body. Things soon go wrong and the Proteus has to take a hazardous - and picturesque - detour. The effects are appropriately trippy, not particularly convincing as a depiction of the interior of a human body by 2009 standards but not awful by any means, and with an integrity that wouldn't necessarily be bettered by CGI treatment. Eventually the laser, or "lacer", as it is pronounced by all in the film, is used to zap away Benes' blood clot and the identity of the saboteur is revealed. The submarine is disabled and the remaining crew escape by other means. The much-vaunted logical flaw, in that the abandoned submarine ought to kill Benes when it resumes normal size, doesn't seem to be much of a problem to me. The film establishes that the submarine will be attacked and digested by antibodies long before it poses any threat to Benes. Granted, its atoms will still be inside him, but the film is so murky on the physics of the shrinking technology that for all we know, the atoms will be assimilated harmlessly.
For me, the best part of Fantastic Voyage is its sense of authenticity. The shrinking process is handled with superb conviction and an almost magisterial slowness. Stage by stage, the Proteus is shrunk, placed in water and then inserted into a syringe ready for injection into the patient. Remarkably, the film spends more than twelve of its hundred minutes merely getting the Proteus into Benes. The shrinking process is shown to be highly technological and proceduralised, much like a spacecraft docking or H-bomb test. Whatever happens afterwards, the film achieves a considerable pay-off in taking its time here. We believe, at least temporarily, that if this absurd feat were possible, this is exactly how it would be done. It's difficult to believe that a modern version of Fantastic Voyage would have the same faith in its audience's attention span.