Saturday 2 April 2011

Fantastic Voyage

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.


  1. Did you ever read the novelization by none other than Isaac Asimov? He worked very hard to convey the same story without the many plot holes. When the ship is crushed, for example, it's essential that they push the consuming cell out of the body before the debris expands. The book actually came out before the movie, though I read it much later (I was 7 at the time). The movie was fun, though.

  2. I've read both Fantastic Voyage novel's by Asimov and if his treatment of the science's, plot and characterisation were transferred onto film, I could only imagine how stunning the film would have been, and it's stand alone sequel if it had been made. Leaving out the fact that computer technology was sucking on a dummy(or pacifier if you're 'merican) in those days, I still enjoy the effects of FV and still think it's a standout SF movie from that period.

  3. I've never read the Asimov book - TBH I'm not that bothered by the plot holes; it's the look of the film - that cold war glamour - that works for me, and the score.

  4. You're in Oslo!? Some kind of public appearance, or holiday?

  5. Norcon:

    On my way home tomorrow. It's been good, though.

  6. Rewatching this great movie recently, the rampant paranoia of communist infiltration is hilariously apparent in the title sequence. Not just reds under the bed, but reds taking over entire neighbourhoods!

  7. Hello -- my name is Charles Choi, and I'm a reporter writing for Scientific American.

    Apologies for contacting you in this manner -- I can't find any other contact info for you.

    I was wondering if you might be willing to comment on a new series I'm writing called Too Hard For Science? You can read more here (, as well as see contact details for me.

    Best -- C.

  8. Al:

    Some thoughts: You can microwave beam down power from geosynchronous solar power sattelites down to the equator. You can also maximally use the Earth'rotation to impart momentum on a spacecraft launched from the equator. Africa has more equatorial land than any other continent.

    Maybe these are some of the reasons that Africa becomes the pre-eminient economic power of the 22nd Century.

    I can't wait for Blue Remembered Earth!


  9. All - struggling with crappy in-room wifi right now so will respond when I get back home.

  10. Ah... I arrived back home in Oslo on April 4th ... Should have been there! :-) Hope you will come to Oslo again!

  11. Hi Alastair
    Let me be the first to congratulate you on getting into the long list with Terminal World for the 2011 Welsh Book Of The Year :)

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