Fantastic Voyage (1966) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Put on your wetsuit and shrink on down for a Fantastic Voyage inside the human body!

Faced with a medical emergency, a team of scientists shrink down to an infinitesimal size to enter into a human body. Being the first film to explore this “innerspace,” Fantastic Voyage presents a film of wondrous imagery, intriguing scientific advancements, and harrowing action!

First Impressions

The trailer for Fantastic Voyage points out some pretty remarkable facts. It mentions a number of different types of sci-fi films that have been made previously: outer space, underwater, the center of the earth, the past and the future. It claims that this film is breaking new ground. Which is pretty much true. A tale about the inside of the human body, with miniaturized people; that’s new! Very little is mentioned about any plot. There’s a military presence, with a General (?) denying that a woman has no place on the mission. But hey, it’s Raquel Welch, so she’s definitely going, right? The film is shot in Cinemascope, a widescreen color format that really will show off every corpuscle and nerve the film has to offer. If you‘ve never seen this film before, be prepared for a treat!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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The Fiction of The Film

Fantastic Voyage boldly goes where no man has gone before! The film opens without fanfare. A plane lands and Grant (Stephen Boyd) escorts Dr. Jan Benes (Jean Del Val), a defector from behind the Iron Curtain into a waiting motorcade. The motorcade is attacked by unknown men, and Benes is inured. Sometime later Grant is picked up and taken to the CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Force) Headquarters where Benes is being prepped for surgery.

Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage title card.

General Carter (Edmond O’Brien) explains to Grant that Benes developed a clot in his brain and the only way to reach it is by shrinking a team down and putting them inside the body. Grant has been hired for security, as there are assassins who would very much like Benes to not survive. He has secrets that can make the shrinking process more permanent than it is now. Presently objects and people can only be shrunk for 60 minutes at a time before reverting to full size.

Joining Grant are Capt Bill Owens (William Redfield), Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence), Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). Their plan is to board a submarine called the Proteus, shrink down to the size of a microbe and get injected into Benes’ bloodstream. They will then travel up the carotid artery and zap the clot with a miniaturized laser. General Carter and Colonel Reid (Arthur O’Connell), also a doctor, will supervise and keep in contact with the team from the control room.

Fantastic Voyage

Dr. Michaels shows the location of the clot on an overlay slide of the body.

Unfortunately, as soon as they are injected into Benes, nothing seems to go right on the mission. They start by getting sucked into a whirlpool, which is an arteriovenous fistula (a tear between a vein and an artery) which happened during the initial attack on Benes. This unexpected damage places them into a vein and heading directly to the heart. The medical team in the operating theater must stop Benes’ heart long enough for the Proteus to pass safely through.

Compounded with this a saboteur aboard the ship has damaged the laser and bled the air tanks, necessitating an immediate return to full size. However Grant realizes that they are near enough the lungs that they should be able to refill their tanks using air from Benes’ own breath. After a few harrowing moments wasted getting more air, they team continues via the lymphatic system back towards the head. They get tangled up a bunch of reticular fibers (which look like seaweed), and clog the vents to the engines, slowing their approach to the inner ear.

The full-size people in the operating theater have to be extra quiet, as any sound might adversely damage the Proteus. Add to that the fact that the crew is unable to contact the full-size world, having needed to cannibalize the radio to fix the laser. The craft stops in the inner ear, and part of the crew must go EVA to unclog the vents. Cora is attacked by antibodies that threaten to strangle her, but Grant and Duval manage to get her inside and clear them off of her just in time.

Fantastic Voyage

The Proteus – an experimental submarine that will be shrunk to microscopic size.

Once at the clot in the brain, Grant, Duval and Cora again go EVA with the repaired and untested laser. Michaels makes himself known as the saboteur and knocks out Owens, taking control of the Proteus. He attempts to ram the team to prevent them from completing the procedure, but Grant seizes the laser and rips a hole in the submarine. They manage to rescue Owens, but Michaels and the craft are consumed and dissolved by white blood cells. The remaining four micro-nauts swim to a tear duct nearest them and extracted, just as 60 minutes elapses, growing to full-size back in the operating theater.

The medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there’s no limit to either.” – Dr. Duval

Fantastic Voyage

Cora and Grant marvel and the technology provided by the CMDF.

History in the Making

Size change films have been around for a while, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man. But where Man was more akin to a horror film, with the terror of a man shrinking out of his control, Fantastic Voyage is a thrilling adventure film. The style and tone of the film is very much like an extended version of a lot of the sci-fi shows that were on television or coming to television later this year.

1966 was the turning point in the decade when science-fiction on television was growing and putting more pressure on filmmakers. Now, these challengers didn’t necessarily affect Fantastic Voyage, but that little box at home would continue raising the stakes for films throughout the decade. By 1966 Lost in Space had been on the air for one year, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had been on for two. This year would also see the debut of a sci-fi/spy series Mission: Impossible (riding on the popularity of The Man From UNCLE), a third Irwin Allen series with The Time Tunnel, and the show that would continue defining the sci-fi genre for decades to come, Star Trek.

In Fantastic Voyage, one can see all the hallmarks from these successful shows: a small team on a covert mission, hi-tech hardware like the Proteus, and some sort of espionage or mystery. In fact the mission that the CMDF faces, is similar to many plots from Bottom of the Sea or Star Trek, ticking clock and all. But the thing that most people remember from this film is Raquel Welch. It was not her first motion picture role, but a well publicized one. She would go onto larger fame, and become a pin-up model, for her work in One Million Years B.C.

Fantastic Voyage

Benes in the operating theater. the miniature radar dishes are used to communicate with the crew.


Much time is taken at the beginning of the film, showing the process of miniaturization and explaining all the possibilities and pitfalls. The filmmakers seem as if they wanted to show off the hardware of the Proteus and the shrinking machines, which is probably the case. Props such as these are not cheap and stories have long been told about producers that expect on-screen time to equate to cost. The creation of the hi-tech props, such as the laser rifle, or sets started a trend of re-using generic (and sometimes, not so-generic) items in other productions. Parts of the brain and inner ear sets, plus the laser rifle showed up in some of Irwin Allen’s productions through the late 60s.

The hi-tech feel of the film also addresses the increased awareness of technology that the public had a fascination for. The space race was well under way, with man making forays into outer space, all while working on taking a trip to the moon. Films had explored the ocean depths, often called inner space. But this was the first time that the biology of humans was filmed in science-fiction context. It was also a direct inspiration for the sci-fi/comedy/adventure film Innerspace (1987) starring Martin Short, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.

Fantastic Voyage

The Proteus traveling through “innerspace.”

Societal Commentary

As with The Incredible Shrinking Man, Fantastic Voyage looks at the philosophical implications of shrinking. In Man, Scott Carey grew more reverent as he grew smaller, finding himself more in touch with the infinite matter in the universe. Voyage creates two different voices to attempt to discuss the philosophical implications of this new world, Dr Duval and Dr Michaels.

Duval, who is the suspected saboteur throughout most of the film takes the approach of a theist. He offers a quote, which Grant completes, stating “Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought, proclaiming, in incandescent glory, the myriad mind of Man.” This does not appear to be attributed to anyone other than the screenwriters (and if it’s not a famous quote, how does Grant know the end of it?). His reverence for the enormity (both physically and intellectually) of their mission assumes that he is a man of God, worried about his actions in light of the creator. “The medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there’s no limit to either,” says Duval later – indicating his piety in the face of these discoveries. He becomes a believer and as such sets up questions regarding his supposed plans to sabotage the mission. How can a man enamored with the mysteries they’re encountering threaten the mission as shown?

Fantastic Voyage

Michaels, Grant and Duval attempt to remove antibodies from Cora.

His counterpart for these philosophical discussions is Dr Michaels, who can be seen as a realist or an atheist, depending on your point of view. His views all lead to the purely scientific explanations. In response to Duval’s initial quote above, he sardonically replies, “very poetic, gentlemen. Let me know when we pass the soul.” Duval responds that, “the finite mind cannot comprehend infinity, and the soul, which comes from God, is infinite.” Michaels sees only with his eyes, and cannot fathom the faith that drives others. In yet another exchange, Duval describes the process that they are witnessing for the first time as, “one of the miracles of the universe,” to which Michael’s states that it is only “an interchange of gases” and the “end product of 500 million years of evolution.” Duval counters that a creative intelligence” must be behind such a reaction.

Placing Michaels as the dissenter to Duval’s wonder actually sets him up, thematically, with the rest of the film. The film is about the achievements of science and machine over man. Duval’s statements cast him as an outsider, in a way, making him seem on the surface as the odd man out. Up until the end, Michael’s tries to use the “gibberish about the soul” argument to convince Grant that Duval is in fact the real threat. A fanatic as he calls him. But when Michaels is revealed as the mole, his cynicism in the face of the wondrous sights they’ve seen becomes more clear. He has been describing himself in all of his chances to discredited Duval. His inability to see the marvels before him blind him to the team’s cause and he is killed and subsumed by the white blood cells; something of a miracle.

Fantastic Voyage

Duval, along with Cora, Michaels and Grant observe the clot in Benes’ brain.

The Science in The Fiction

As with many science-fiction films, thinking about them too hard is liable to reveal flaws in the plot or technology. As science is an extremely important element in this film, there’s more chances to review potential issues. The filmmakers use their special effects to imagine what the inside of a body looks like and how a miniature submarine would navigate such a world. Nothing particularly seems amiss about the depiction of the body. All of the obstacles presented, from the arteriovenous fistula to the inner ear, are real areas of the body that could present difficulties for the team. The questions that arise are more in the miniaturization process and its interoperability with the medical process.

Questions such as: did the white blood cells dissolve the craft and Dr Michaels fully? If not, they would revert to normal size once the hour was up, ripping their way through Benes’ body, and killing him rather than saving him. How do the miniature humans breathe? Normally these questions aren’t raised, but since they have to make a pitstop at Benes’ lungs to refill their air tanks (which should also be pressurized but are not), would their miniature lungs be able to process oxygen in the same way when made the size of a microbe? These questions and others arose during this viewing. But, even though the thought of plausibility arises, that doesn’t mean that the enjoyment of the film is lessened. Fantastic Voyage still holds up as a strong adventure film, filled with awe and wonder, while pushing a positive spin on the future of scientific advancements.

Fantastic Voyage

Duval uses the miniature laser on the blood clot in Benes’ brain.

The Final Frontier

Even though this was a 20th Century Fox project, Disneyland created a ride called “Adventure Through Inner Space” that shrunk riders down to microscopic size and allowed them to see the winders of the human body. No doubt inspired in part by this film, having opened the year after the movies release. This ride however is no longer in use, as “Star Tours” sits at that location. The Star Wars inspired ride did have a reference to the “Inner Space” ride having the Mighty Microscope prop visible in the maintenance area of the original film of the ride. This version of “Star Tours” is also no longer in use.

Sci-Fi Saturdays will be going on a brief hiatus, but will return in October with science-fiction/horror films as part of the 31 Days of Horror project. This blog will then finish out the 1960s this year, and begin the new year with the 1970s – the decade when sci-fi films graduated from B-movies to full fledged blockbusters!

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Fahrenheit 451 title card.

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