No matter how far science-fiction movies have come in the past 55 years, there’s never been another quite like “Fantastic Voyage.”
Offered by Turner Classic Movies to start a tribute to director Richard Fleischer on Saturday, Oct. 9, the 1966 fantasy takes a miniaturized submarine crew on a trip through a defecting scientist’s (Jean Del Val) body to repair a critical injury from within. Bear in mind that this was made before the era of commonly used computer-generated special effects, so what the film achieves with its visuals — which earned two Oscars — is that much more amazing.
The story starts on a very realistic note as the scientist in question is delivered, supposedly safely, to his destination by an intelligence agent played by Stephen Boyd. Soon afterward, though, he’s the target of an attack committed by automobile …and it’s determined that the only way to repair the damage to his brain is to deploy a team to enter his body, injected via a hypodermic needle, and stage the needed procedure.
That would seem impossible, if not for a top-secret process that can shrink anything — or anyone — down to the size of a microbe. The Boyd character is enlisted to go along on the sub to provide security for a surgeon and his assistant (Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch), a rather tightly wound medical consultant (Donald Pleasence) and the vessel’s driver (William Redfield). And they have only an hour to get in, accomplish their mission and get out before they start growing back to normal size.
It’s a terrific sci-fi concept, and though a remake has been discussed for many years (with such filmmakers as James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro involved at various stages), the original holds up quite durably. For all of its scientific intrigue, it wasn’t hurt by the presence of then-relative-newcomer Welch, who made a major splash in the movie industry between this and “One Million Years B.C.” the following year.
Not all of the action in “Fantastic Voyage” takes place inside a body, and the picture also provides good roles on the “outside” for reliable screen veterans Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell as military officials overseeing the situation. Though it’s hard to recognize him with a medical mask over his face, James Brolin — then a contract player at 20th Century Fox — also is present.
“Fantastic Voyage” is one of those films that likely sounded great in the pitch, but also must have generated questions about whether it actually could be done. As it turned out, it could, and the result remains fascinating and hugely entertaining.