On the occasion of Raquel Welch’s 70th birthday (although to me she’ll always be the hottie from One Million Years B.C. and such 4:30 Movie favorites as Fathom, Bandolero!, Lady in Cement, 100 Rifles, and Flareup), we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
A solid cast and spectacular visuals make this 1966 tale of a miniaturized submarine on a life-or-death mission inside a human body one of the most entertaining SF films of the 1960s. The subject of countless imitations and homages, including the Dennis Quaid comedy Innerspace (1987) and an episode of The Simpsons, it also inspired an animated children’s series on ABC.
Director Richard Fleischer was eminently qualified, having handled the ultimate in SF submarine stories, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in its 1954 Disney incarnation. The son of pioneering animator Max Fleischer, he had shared a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for Design for Death (1947), and was long associated with the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.
No fewer than four screenwriters were credited on the film, whose story was devised by Otto Klement and Star Trek contributor Jay Lewis (aka Jerome) Bixby. The adaptation was by David Duncan, whose many SF films include The Time Machine (1960), while Harry Kleiner, a veteran of various genres ranging from crime thrillers to Westerns, supplied the final screenplay.
A scientist who has been working behind the Iron Curtain, Jan Benes (Jean del Valle) is injured while defecting to the West with the help of an intelligence agent, Grant (Stephen Boyd). His life is threatened by a blood clot in his brain, and as General Carter (Edmond O’Brien) tells an astonished Grant, the only way to perform the delicate surgery needed is from inside his body.
Grant is quickly recruited to join the surgical team that will be miniaturized inside a sub, the Proteus (designed by Harper Goff, as was Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues). The process lasts for only an hour, and Benes is, ironically, the only one who knows how to extend that period indefinitely, hence the urgency with which the West wishes to unlock his secrets.
The crew comprises a surgeon, Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy); his assistant, Cora (Welch in an early, iconic role); a pilot, Capt. Bill Owens (William Redfield); and Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence), who navigates and heads the team. A series of sabotage attempts reveals the presence of a traitor on board the Proteus, and its many mishaps require visits to various organs.
An unnatural joining of circulatory tubes forces a detour through the heart, temporarily stopped by the surgeons tracking their progress, and a trip through the ear turns disastrous when a pair of dropped scissors sets off catastrophic vibrations. Delicate ear fibers are disturbed, and antibodies cover Cora’s white wetsuit, constricting and choking her until they can be removed.
In his memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry, Fleischer recalls that on the first take, Welch’s male crewmembers tactfully refrained from touching her legendary bosom, leaving a veritable “antibody brassiere” in place on her wetsuit. When they overcompensated on the second take, grabbing her breasts with wild abandon, Fleischer was forced to choreograph the entire scene.
The likeliest suspect, Dr. Duval, is revealed as a red herring when Michaels knocks out Owens and tries to ram Benes’s brain with the ship, just as Duval is cutting the clot with a laser beam. Grant uses the laser to disable the Proteus, which—with Michaels still trapped inside—is consumed by a white corpuscle, forcing the crew to improvise their exit through the tear ducts.
While the filmmakers went to laudable lengths to ensure the film’s anatomical accuracy, having doctors inspect its oversized sets, the miniaturization process they depicted is, of course, quite implausible. Himself a scientist, acclaimed SF author Isaac Asimov famously tried—with mixed success—to reconcile some of these inconsistencies in his novelization of the screenplay.
Fantastic Voyage won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, as well as the Academy Awards for Art Cruickshank’s special visual effects and for Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration. It was also nominated for Oscars in color cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo, who won the previous year for Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools), film editing, and sound effects.