FANTASTIC VOYAGE – Blu-ray review

In a 1961 Fox film, a crew aboard a nuclear-powered submarine went deep under the sea to try to save the world. In this 1966 feature from Fox, a crew aboard a nuclear-powered submarine is miniaturized and travels through the bloodstream of a scientist who has vital information that presumably COULD save the world (or not)—something about knowing the secret to keeping miniaturized armies tiny longer than anyone at the massive secret underground compound had been able to manage.

But hey, it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that “Fantastic Voyage” registered a 10 on the originality meter by ‘60s standards and came with special effects that, we were told in a pre-title sequence tile, reflect a true picture of “inner space.” Another big draw was Raquel Welch, who that same year—1966—also appeared in tattered cave woman togs in “One Million Years B.C.” and turned up on a poster in just about every male dorm room in America.

If the college crowd was holding their collective breath wondering when the big-chested actress was going to unzip a jumpsuit that was identical to those the men wore, they’re still turning blue. It never happens, and credit director Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” “Soylent Green,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!”) for striking a blow for feminism. The most gratuitous moment comes when Welch’s character is covered with antibodies and finding it tough to breathe. As the men hover around her and begin ripping off those alien-like suckers, eventually one of them grabs one from her breast. Otherwise, the young director keeps the focus on the mission and the special effects.

Stephen Boyd, who’s probably most famous for going up against Charlton Heston in the chariot race in 1959’s “Ben-Hur,” plays a CIA agent who’s asked to accompany a scientific team on this risky mission to remove a clot from the comatose scientist’s brain so they can revive him and get that vital information. They have one hour to get in and get out, because one second more and they all return to normal size. And I guess you know what that would do to the poor scientist whose circulatory and other systems they’re navigating.

Fleischer could have done more to create that ticking-clock suspense, though, because once we’re inside the body the emphasis seems to be on the dangers at hand—things like white blood cells and antibodies, both of which attack foreign substances. A saboteur may be onboard, but even that isn’t played as much for suspense as it might have been. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve seen Donald Pleasence in so many films that you know instantly he’s either going to be the one who a) is a bad guy or b) cracks under pressure and jeopardizes the mission that way.

“Fantastic Voyage” is a special effects film, and it won Oscars that year for Special Visual Effects and Art Direction-Set Decoration. For its time, it was as accurate as anyone scientists imagined. In fact, the film was shown in medical schools as late as the ‘80s. Now, given some of the documentaries that have taken us inside the body with regularity, the journey isn’t quite so astounding . . . and some of the sets, like the inside of a lung, look a little more like they could have come from a campy sci-fi series like “Lost in Space.” But overall the effects still hold up, and HD doesn’t give away any tricks. You’d have to know, for example, that the outside-the-sub scuba sequences weren’t shot in liquid, but that the actors were suspended from wires and the film was sped up to make them look like they were swimming.

Though the scenery changes, so much of the real-time one-hour journey seems similar enough that it loses a little energy—something I thought that the sci-fi comedy “Innerspace” (1987) avoided by having more at stake outside the body, in addition to the mission. I still prefer that version to this one, and for that very reason.

“Fantastic Voyage” is rated PG for “mild violence and language.”

In theaters “Fantastic Voyage” was shown in CinemaScope, and the 2.35:1 widescreen presentation looks very good here. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc produces no aliasing, no banding, and I couldn’t detect any over-application of DNR. There’s a very slight layer of filmic grain, and decent-enough edge delineation. Flesh tones vary, but according to the colors of the body that are dominating that particular set and sequence. If you have the DVD of this title you’ll notice that the colors are richer looking, the film is brighter, and the grain is far less. It’s a noticeable upgrade.

I don’t have much to say about the audio, except to emphasize that purists can watch in the original mono (upgraded to a DTS-HD MA Mono) or opt for greater audio immersion with a featured English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that does a pretty good job of remixing and redistributing the sound across the effects speakers. Additional audio options are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 1.0, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

Fans of this one get two commentaries:  an isolated score track with film historians Jeff Bond, Jon Burlingame, and Nick Redman commenting mostly ahead of the music (which really begins when the fantastic voyage begins); and a feature commentary with Bond again covering all the basics in a somewhat average walk-through. In “Lava Lamps and Celluloid: A Tribute to the Visual Effects of Fantastic Voyage” we get an 18-minute look at how those effects were constructed, and in “Whirlpool Scene: Storyboard to Scene” it’s a two-minute, multi-angle glimpse of the production process. Topping off the features are shopworn trailers and TV spots (13 min., total).

Bottom line:
“Fantastic Voyage” may not be as suspenseful as it once was, because we’ve seen many shots of the body’s interior and we no longer have the undercurrents of the Cold War that made life itself an edge-of-the-seat affair. But it’s still a fun sci-fi excursion.