O'Brien, Edmond, Fleischer, Richard, Pleasence, Donald, Boyd, Stephen, Welch, Raquel
- Belling, Catherine
- Date of entry: Nov-18-2002
- Last revised: Nov-07-2007
The Cold War. America and Russia (or rather "us" and "them") have both developed miniaturization technology that enables them to reduce objects, including human beings, to microscopic size. The Americans are unable to control the objects’ return to normal size after an hour; the Russians can. An American spy called Benes has stolen this information from the Russians but on his return to America he is injured when the Russians try to kill him. He develops a blood clot in his brain.
To remove the clot, a team of western scientists, led by the surgeon Duval (Edmond O’Brien) and a British vascular specialist, Michaels (Donald Pleasance), is miniaturized inside a submarine which is injected into Benes’s carotid artery. Dr. Duval has a laser gun with which he is to destroy the clot. Also on the submarine are Grant (Stephen Boyd), a military employee in charge of security, and Cora Petersen (Raquel Welsh), Duval’s technical assistant.
The team has an hour to reach the patient’s brain and destroy the clot. They overcome various hurdles, including being washed through an arterial-venous fistula in the jugular vein, having to travel through Benes’s heart (which is temporarily arrested by the outside surgical team to keep the submarine from being crushed), being attacked by antibodies in the lymphatic system, and having to replenish their air supply by breaking through the wall of an alveolar sac.
Finally, they reach the brain and find the clot, but Dr. Michaels turns out to be spying for the other side, and tries to sabotage the mission. He crashes the submarine, but is thwarted by Grant and ingested by a white blood cell. Duval destroys the clot and the crew escapes Benes’s body via the optic nerve. They are washed out in a tear just as they are beginning to return to normal size. Benes is never seen to wake up, but the film’s ending implies that the mission has been successful.
This film is fascinating for the perspectives it offers on technology, both medical and cinematic, in the 1960s, and on contemporary views of the body and the future of medical science. (The film’s title has been invoked frequently in recent months, in reference to the development of a capsule-sized camera that can be swallowed in order to capture video images of the alimentary canal.) Its tone is serious and awed (apart from the light relief of mild sexual banter between the men and Miss Peterson), and the voyage to the body’s interior is presented to the audience as an inspiring access to hidden secrets. The film is framed by references to medical and scientific production consultants and advisors.
Nonetheless, it is impossible not to be amused by the high-tech medical imaging of 1966 (and analyzing this amusement might make an interesting teaching exercise in historicizing knowledge and technology). The submarine is nuclear-powered, so its progress can be followed like a radioactive tracer. A technician shows its position by manually moving a light around a large, simple diagram of the body. The crew communicates with the outside world by radio, using Morse code. The blood resembles water with lava-lamp globules in it (pink in arteries and blue in veins) to represent corpuscles. "Antibodies" are kelp-like threads that wrap around bodies, and the white blood cell resembles cotton candy.
Similarly interesting is the film’s representation of women. Raquel Welsh’s character is biddable and comely, allowed on the mission, after loud objections about including women, because she can service Dr. Duval’s laser gun (her efficiency is undermined somewhat when the gun is sabotaged by Dr. Michaels and when the flirtatious Grant, watching her work, asks whether she can cook, too).
The film plays out some simple philosophical discussion about the body. The two physicians, Duval and Michaels, are distinguished by their attitudes to physiology: Duval, watching corpuscles being oxygenated in the lung, calls the process a "miracle," and proof of a "creative intelligence." Michaels, showing himself to be the film’s villain, dismisses this view, calling the process a mere interchange of gases of evolutionary origin, and later taunts Duval about looking out for the soul while traveling in the brain.
The concept of this film has been revisited; see Innerspace and Osmosis Jones in this data base. Fantastic Voyage differs from its followers in its seriousness, at a time when visual access to the body’s interior was extremely limited, even to medical professionals, about the wonders it reveals, and in the absolute inanimation of the patient, Benes, explored only while entirely unconscious, reduced by coma and general anesthesia to a physical geography in which others can travel. Investigating deep inside the body of an alert and responsive patient was as yet inconceivable.