I confess that I was not at all certain how well Fantastic Voyage would go over with our son. Like the last film that we watched together, Planet of the Apes, it was a big favorite of my father. But Apes went down like a lead balloon, and the kid is hungrier for faster-paced adventures than the often slow spectacles of older science fiction.
(Dad was also a big fan of One Million Years B.C., which we’re going to watch in 2021. The presence of Raquel Welch in two of Dad’s favorite sixties films is probably not a coincidence.)
The other concern is that Fantastic Voyage is a story about shrinking people and injecting them into the bloodstream of a patient to operate on a blood clot in his brain. That was probably a remarkably outré concept for mainstream audiences in 1966, but it’s old hat now in a world where Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly star in billion dollar Marvel movies. Plus, the visual effects that a viewer in the present day can expect are a bit more sophisticated than lava lamps and bouncy-house sets.
But boy howdy, it worked. This is a fine, fine film, and our son was completely captivated and excited throughout. He enjoyed it tremendously, thank goodness. He got a little squirmy about halfway through, but that’s mainly because he was worried about the characters.
The visuals really feel only a little dated to me. As for how the rest of it has aged, there’s the expected “this is too dangerous for a woman” – slash – “what’s a nice girl like you doing on a mission like this” business you got in sixties cinema, and it does take what feels like forever to get moving. That said, I confess that a mischievous part of me wonders whether this might not have been a little bit intentional. This was 1966, after all. Drop a tab of LSD when the Coming Attraction trailers start, and, assuming you got a good dose, that stuff’d kick in right around the 39 minute mark, when it all goes psychedelic.
But I think it worked well with a kid from the modern day because even though the Quantum Realm and whatever else that Ant-Man and the Wasp do has its own specific look and feel, nothing looks like Fantastic Voyage. This is an incredibly imaginative movie full of wild designs, and just because special effects wizards do things differently these days, what 20th Century Fox did in 1966 still looks amazing. Add in some remarkable sets for the “real” world and the whole shebang just glows with all the effort put into it. The control center is a jawdropping multi-tiered set with the submarine hangar on one side, an operating theater on the other, and the room where all the generals and majors bark their orders above and between them. And I was so convinced by the crazy corridors of the headquarters that it honestly took me several minutes to realize they filmed it on location in a stadium somewhere. (It was the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the original home of the Lakers when they moved to California.)
As for the plot, it might start out slowly, but it’s an interesting bit of Cold War paranoia, with a dirty commie saboteur somewhere around, and lots of men speaking urgently to each other across black and white monitors. Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasance are among the team whose submarine “is riding through somebody’s brain,” as Dar Williams once sang. The script may have had conventional roles for all the characters, but the acting is top-notch and the visuals are terrific. It’s done with an almost real-time urgency and an escalating series of unexpected obstacles.
I am very, very glad our son enjoyed this more than he did Apes. I did as well!