Fairly rare in its class, Fantastic Voyage (FV) is a big-budget, A-grade sci-fi film shot by a major studio, that was not an adaptation of an old classic. 20th Century Fox produced a modern, forward-looking story in the also-rare biology category. Fox used upper-teir actors such as Stephen Boyd, Edmond O'Brien and the soon-to-be-phenom, Rachel Welch. The trope of shrinking people was not new in the sci-fi movie world, but the setting (the inside of a human body) was quite new. This novelty helped freshen up the usual big-made-small visual effects.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A foreign scientist is brought to America amid high security. Despite the guards, the motorcade is rammed in an assassination attempt. In the crash, Mr. Benes hits his head, causing a life-threatening blood clot in his brain. Benes has the solution to a major technological weapons problem, so must be saved at all costs. Conventional surgery would be fatal, so the government employs its super-secret miniaturization program. A team and a mini-sub will be shrunk to sub-microbe size, injected into Benes' body and preform the surgery from the inside. The catch is that minaturization is only good for an hour. After that, they start growing. Benes has the key to lasting miniaturization. Dr. Duval, the surgeon, will use a laser rifle to cut the clot. He will be assisted by his buxom beauty assistant, Cora. Dr. Michaels will act as back-up doc and navigator. Col. Bill Owens will pilot the sub, named Proteus. Grant, a security agent is sent along too. Once shrunk and injected, the team are caught in a turbulent current. A rare artery-vein connection whisks them towards the heart where they'll be crushed. Doctors stop Benes' heart for 60 seconds to allow Proteus to pass through. The laser rifle is found damaged. Sabotage? Dr. Michaels insinuates Duval. Grant cannibalizes his radio for parts to fix the laser. A valve on one of Proteus' air tanks mysteriously fails. Abort the mission? No. Grant suggests they refill while in the lungs. Grant almost lost when his tether line breaks. Or was it cut? They pass through the ear en route to the brain. All doctors must be silent, but a nurse drops a forceps. The shock waves send the team tumbling. Cora gets "stuck" in some cilia. Grant rescues her just as the antibodies attack. Once in the brain, they locate the clot. Duval, Cora and Grant go out to cut with the repaired laser. The operation is going well. Dr. Michaels clubs Bill, takes control and steers the Proteus at full speed, to ram Benes fragile brain cells and kill him. Grant takes the laser and cuts a gash in the Proteus. It crashes into some apparently hardy tissue. White blood cells converge. Grant rescues Bill, but not Dr. Michaels before the cells dissolve/consume the Proteus. Time is up, so the surviving team must swim to the eye, in hopes of escaping out a tear duct. They do, and grow back to normal size. Congrats and handshakes all around. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
The totally different setting for all the action adds interest. Once you get over the implausibility of a shrinking ray and the physics problems, the script plays out fairly plausibly. It's also fun to see young Rachel Welch (here only 25) before she became the hot-bod sex symbol of the latter 60s and 70s.
Cold War Angle
This is background to the plot, not allegory. Benes is a sort of scientific defector, whom "They" try to assassinate. As a parallel to joint nuclear destruction: the whole miniature army thing is a technology both sides share, but cannot exploit.
Based on the Book? -- Actually, the screenplay was based on a story co-written by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby. (Bixby wrote a few Star Trek episodes and the "It's a Good Life" story which became a famous Twilight Zone episode. ) Bantam obtained the paperback rights to the screenplay, seeking to release a book based on the movie's story and cash in on FV's anticipated popularity. Such merchandizing co-releases (book, music, action figures, toys, etc.) would become fairly common in decades to come, but were still fairly new in the mid-60s. Bantam recruited Isaac Asimov. He was reluctant, but later agreed. Since such merchandizing was still fairly new, it wasn't managed well. Asimov finished his book early. Bantam released it. The movie ran into production delays, so the book was came out several months before the movie. This gave the impression that the movie was based on Asimov's book, but it was really the other way around.
Asimov's Objection -- The more science-atuned Asimov did not like that the screenplay left Proteus inside Benes' body. Even if the white blood cells had begun dissolving Proteus, chunks of it, or even just all its collective atoms, would still be there. Conservation of matter. Those atoms should begin expanding too, when the hour was up, thus killing Benes. Asimov got permission to change that part. He had the team taunting the white blood cell (hanging onto Proteus) to follow them to the tear duct. That way, the team, the crippled Proteus, and one surprised white blood cell, were extracted. The conservation of matter was maintained.
Flat Rachel -- Rachel Welch's previous screen roles had been as minor eye candy. Her role as Cora in FV did occasionally take advantage of her generous assets. Note the scene in which the three men paw at her chest to ostensibly remove the constricting antibodies. But for the most part, she plays a very flat and conventional female role. She is there to assist, but does little. She is there for the men to impress her. Case in point, Cora is supposedly Dr. Duval's long time surgical assistant, yet once in the blood stream, she has no idea what those large blobs might be. The men enlighten her. Seriously? She is there to get into trouble so the hero can rescue her. The script gives her little beyond "Help. Help me!"
Conventional vs. Nukes -- FV captures an aspect of Cold War thought. Once mutually assured destruction as realized, the focus shifted to superiority in conventional weapons. In FV, we're told that nuclear atoms cannot be shrunk. Only conventional weapons and troops could be miniaturized. The shrinky-ray would allow one side (or the other) to invade conquer without nukes.
Poem From Nowhere -- The Duval character is written to be a bit of a philosopher. When they enter the brain, he begins to quote a line or two from a poem. "Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought... " Grant, apparently more than just another G-man thug, finishes the line. "...proclaiming in incandescent glory the myriad mind of Man." Even though Grant finishing the line suggests that it comes from some famous poem, it isn't. Apparently, it was the product of the script writers, but presented as if it were a Romantic Era classic.
Lay-Zer -- Another curious bit in FV is how the word "laser" had not yet settled into its final pronunciation. An earlier film called the tool a "Lah-sir". In FV, they call it a "lay-sur". Later, the S would get vocalized, becoming a Z sound. Ears accustomed to decades of "lay-zer" the odd pronunciation stands out.
Bottom line? FV is one of the 60s big classics and not to be missed. The effects were spellbinding in their day, and actually hold up reasonably today. The story and setting are different enough that even non-sci-fi fans can enjoy it.