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|Reviewed by Steve Rogers|
As visual effects veteran Richard Edlund notes in the featurette "Lava Lamps & Celluloid", included in the new special edition of Fantastic Voyage, the movie was a groundbreaking effort coming at an important juncture for science-fiction filmmaking. The barrage of (mostly) B sci-fi movies in the Fifties had been followed by a fallow period in the Sixties, but Fantastic Voyage reinvigorated the genre with an awe-inspiring story and previously unseen visual effects.
Of course by today's standards those effects may seem a bit hokey and primitive, but I can tell you that 40 years ago this film made quite a stir with critics and moviegoers alike. I'm enough of a geezer to have actually witnessed Fantastic Voyage in its original theatrical presentation and it was a true cinematic event (at least for me and my grade school buddies), a pop corn, matinee movie of the first order.
The innovative storyline played off the intrigue of cold war spy thrillers popular in the Sixties, and combined it with a tried and true sci-fi specialty - miniaturization. The film opens with an assassination attempt on a foreign scientist who has just been smuggled into the U.S. with secret information on the science of miniaturization. The attack leaves him comatose with a blood clot on his brain that can only be operated on internally. A team of doctors and scientists are placed in a mini submarine, shrunk down to the size of a microbe, and injected into the arterial system of the comatose scientist (with only 60 minutes to complete their task of destroying the blood clot before they are de-miniaturized). Danger lurks at every joint and lymph node as the intrepid, speck-sized explorers battle the body's natural defenses and deal with a possible saboteur onboard the sub. The crew includes an appropriately wooden Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch (in her feature film debut) and the always enjoyable Donald Pleasence in a suitably paranoid mode.
It's a roller coaster ride of a movie, with a wondrous collection of visual effects and an eerie score that combine to enhance the onscreen experience of "inner space". Although some of the effects are not always convincing (mattes shots are often obvious and cables suspending the crew members as they float outside the sub are occasionally visible) - remember, this was 1966. The film immerses you in its adventure to the point where you really don't care. While the high-tech world of computer graphics has completely eclipsed the once cutting-edge visual effects of Fantastic Voyage, the exuberance and sheer fun of this thriller remains undiminished.
The special edition has received a new transfer with improved picture quality over the original 2000 DVD version. Unfortunately, it's still not the pristine image I had hoped for. While the immense color palette of the film is rendered in bold fashion, the overall image is still slightly hazy, and some significant grain and artifacts remain. But the overall reproduction of the Cinemascope image is satisfying, and this is a film that must be seen in widescreen to appreciate Richard Fleischer's skillful use of frame composition.
The original mono soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital mono and 2.0 surround. The surround effects are limited to some minor use of the front channels, though the reworked audio was engaging in the opening assassination attack sequences. But dialogue predominates in the movie and, with the exception of a few instances (the beating heart, high-pitched wind tunnel effects in the lungs), it actually seems pretty quiet inside the human body. The avant-garde score by Leonard Rosenman sounds great.
The special features section promised but didn't deliver. The best features are the two audio commentaries. On the full length commentary, Jeff Bond of Cinefantastique magazine provides a detailed commentary with a wealth of information on the movie's history and the production process. The isolated audio track with Bond and two film historians highlights Rosenman's ethereal score and offers new insight into the composer's contribution to the cinematic creation of the inner space world. A single featurette, "Lava Lamps & Celluloid: A Tribute to the Visual Effects of Fantastic Voyage" features Edlund and fellow visual effects artist Craig Barron with interesting observations and anecdotes but it's much too brief. There's also a storyboard-to-scene comparison and some paltry stills galleries with a couple of shots of the submarine model. Promo spots and trailers round out the balance and there's an interactive pressbook feature that I couldn't access. Fox should have provided more considering the standing of the film with sci-fi fans and its inclusion in their Cinema Classics Collection series.
Fantastic Voyage remains one of the great sci-fi adventure films of all-time, a true milestone in the evolution of the genre. Innovative production, suspenseful storytelling, and action to spare put this one on the map. Fox's new special edition allows viewers to re-experience this glorious film in its widescreen beauty. Unfortunately, the disc's skimpy special features are a disappointment and not worthy of their Cinema Classics label.