Innerspace (1987) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Let’s get small!!

Joe Dante’s Innerspace is a fun, action-oriented , buddy film that pulls a lot of ideas from older sci-fi films, while enjoying the technology and special effects of the modern era.

First Impressions

The trailer for Innerspace is pretty much self explanatory. The title card includes the name Steven Spielberg, so that’s cool. Martin Short is a goofy supermarket clerk that is accidentally injected with a miniaturized Dennis Quaid and has only a short amount of time to get him out. It looks like an action-buddy comedy where the stronger character happens to actually be inside the nerdy one. Can they succeed? Let’s check it out..

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


Sci-Fi Saturdays

Innerspace

Innerspace title card.

The Fiction of The Film

At a Test Pilot’s of America party in San Francisco, Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) gets over boisterous and into a fight with some others. He is saved by his on-again/off-again girlfriend, reporter Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan). They share the evening together, but she leaves in a hurry the next morning due to Tuck’s lack of commitment. Elsewhere, hypochondriac Jack Putter (Martin Short) is told by his doctor (William Schallert) that he needs a break from stress and to go on a vacation.

At VectorScope, the company that Tuck is working for, they begin their experiment. Tuck is placed in a submersible and using new technology called PEM chips, he is miniaturized and placed in a syringe, to be injected into a lab rabbit named Bugs (as in Bunny). Terrorists break into the lab, led by Dr. Margaret Canker (Fiona Lewis), to steal the technology. Head scientist Ozzie (John Hora) escapes with the syringe and is chased into a local Mall where he injects the fluid (with the miniaturized Tuck) into Jack, who is on his way from booking a vacation.

Jack returns to his job as a checkout clerk at a grocery store, but is soon troubled by strange voices in his head, which is just Tuck trying to communicate. Jack is pursued by some hit men, including Mr Igoe (Vernon Wells), the same man who killed Ozzie, who has an interchangeable mechanized hand. When they are unable to secure Jack and the technology, they call in the Cowboy (Robert Picardo).

Innerspace

The scientists check out the miniaturized submersible in a drop of water, with a teeny tiny Tuck behind the controls.

Tuck instructs Jack to get in touch with Lydia who can help them. They agree not to tell her that Tuck is actually miniaturized inside Jack. Lydia gets word that the Cowboy is back in town and follows him to get more information. They find that he was hired by industrialist Victor Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy) to secure the second PEM chip. Both chips are needed to reverse the miniaturization process. Jack knocks out the Cowboy and with some help from Tuck’s onboard technology, assumes the man’s identity–having his face reshaped to look like him.

Jack and Lydia then meet with Scrimshaw to get the PEM back in order to get Tuck out by 9AM the next morning, before he runs out of air. Unfortunately the stress causes Jack’s facial muscles to relax back to his normal self and they are captured. During their imprisonment Jack kisses Lydia and Tuck is transferred into her body, where he finds out she’s pregnant. The bad guys miniaturize Mr Igoe in a special suit and inject him into Jack, unaware that Tuck is no longer in the body.

Jack and Lydia escape, getting Tuck back into Jack with another kiss to stop Igoe before he can kill Jack. In their escape, Scrimshaw and Fiona are shrunk to 50% normal size. They attempt to stop Jack and Lydia by attacking them in the car while Tuck drops his pod, under attack by Igoe, into Jack’s stomach, dissolving the bad guy in acid. They manage to lose the bad guys and get Tuck out safely with seconds to spare. Later, Tuck and Lydia are married, with Jack as the best man. As they drive away in their limo, Jack realizes that the driver was the Cowboy and hops into Tuck’s convertible to rescue them.

We’re gonna drink this one to Ozzie. A good man who tried to save my ass by injecting me into yours.” – Tuck Pendleton

Innerspace

Ozzie injects Tuck into Jack after being shot in a Mall by Mr. Igoe. I know, I know…what’s a Mall?

History in the Making

Innerspace was Joe Dante’s 1987 follow-up to Explorers, and a much more scientific-based sci-fi story. While Explorers was more fantastical, with kids creating a spaceship to explore the cosmos and running into aliens, Innerspace was focused on the potential real-world technology of miniaturization and its effects. It featured Dennis Quaid in the lead as Tuck Pendleton. Quaid was becoming a big star having been the lead in two previous sci-fi films, Dreamscape and Enemy Mine. He would eventually go on to even bigger roles, like Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire, before returning to this genre with Frequency and Pandorum. He was paired with comedian Martin Short, who received his start on the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV, having starred in the comedy Three Amigos! the previous year. Meg Ryan was also cast in her first romantic lead (though technically she had a modest part in the 1986 comedy Armed and Dangerous). She and Quaid would become romantically linked, pairing up in both real life and in the movies, starting with 1988’s remake of DOA.

Dante tones down some of the absurdity that was seen in earlier films, like Gremlins, but still manages to keep much of his trademark humor. His use of comical, cartoon inspired moments is probably one of his best known traits. Innerspace has one of his best gags. When Jack, who appears to look like the Cowboy (a dual-role by Robert Picardo), begins to change back, the character spastically shakes his head back and forth as his features elongate and stretch, returning him to his normal self. This effect, crafted by Rob Bottin, is very much directly out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Dante also utilizes many classic sci-fi actors in cameo or featured roles in his films. The most obvious is Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Scrimshaw. McCarthy has been in six Dante films including The Howling and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Robert Picardo is also another actor that Dante uses often, and is usually involved in very comedic gags. Bit parts in the film went to perennial Dante-favorite Dick Miller (Not of This Earth) as a cab driver who has appeared in all but two of Dante’s films, Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World) as a man in the bathroom that appears to hear Jack talking to his penis, Chuck Joes (Looney Tunes director) as a grocery store patron, Wendy Schall as a co-worker of Jack’s, and William Schallert, as Jack’s doctor. Two additional cameos went to Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin, two of Short’s co-stars from the days of SCTV. Fans may also recognize the unspeaking villain, Mr. Igoe as Wez, the mohawked biker from The Road Warrior and a similar role in Weird Science.

Innerspace

William Schallert portrays Jack’s doctor in an homage to his role in “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

Genre-fication

Innerspace may remind viewers of two other classic films about miniaturization: Fantastic Voyage and The Incredible Shrinking Man. That’s good, because both these films were on the mind of the filmmakers as they made the movie. Innerspace started as more of an homage to Fantastic Voyage but slowly drifted around to the more comedic version that appears on screen. The film imagines that instead of a man lying comatose on an operating table, instead he is able to walk around and communicate with the tiny person inside of him. The special effects provided a much more realistic interpretation of the inside of the human body, which garnered an Academy Award for the technicians at Industrial Light and Magic, a first for a Joe Dante film.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is only obliquely referenced here. It’s most obvious nod is William Schallert playing Jack’s doctor as an homage to his role in the original film as the doctor for Scott Carey. That film deals more with a character that is having to deal with the realization that his life is changing out of his control, which Innerspace uses, but only from the standpoint that Jack is forced into an heroic role by the situations and not inclined to take part in the action as a normal part of his life.

The film also was an early buddy-action film, typified in the 80s by Lethal Weapon (which was released 4 months earlier) and 48 Hrs. Innerspace changes the formula a bit by making it a buddy-comedy with one handsome action star and one comedian in the roles. This formula would be repeated in various degrees by films like Running Scared, The Last Boy Scout or Rush Hour. While Innerspace did not take part in inspiring these more action centered films, it did have a hand in reintroducing audiences to the fun of films with shrunken people and probably paved the way for the release of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in 1989 and its spin-offs.

Innerspace

Using some technology on his craft, Tuck is able to transform Jack into the spitting image of the Cowboy.

Societal Commentary

As with many science-fiction films, the premise of advanced technology and fantastical situations are usually more of a gateway into some other theme about the human condition. Innerspace is no different, dealing with characters that must understand fundamental limitations about who they are and make changes in order to grow and succeed. Tuck for instance is a character that audiences are told hates authority, can’t take orders and makes up his own rules. Definitely mixed qualifications for a test pilot. Here, Tuck is completely on his own in an uncontrolled environment and absolutely must rely on others for assistance. He has some technological abilities in order to assist, but without Jack, Tuck would never have succeeded in his mission.

Jack, on the other hand, is a character that can’t stand to be out of control. His nebbish demeanor, and constant belief that he is sick, has kept him from relating socially with others. He lacks confidence in his abilities, and only through his partnership with Tuck is he able to take chances and learn to grow. One of the best, and funniest, moments is after Jack knocks out a bad guy, believing that Tuck is still inside him stimulating his adrenal gland. Moments later he discovers that Tuck hasn’t been in his body for a while and everything he did was on his own. Jack humorously freaks out a bit. Likewise Tuck realizes all the things he’s missing out on with Lydia by getting a chance to literally see her through different eyes. His realization allows him to grow up and stop being the perennial party man, and decide that he wants to be with one woman for the rest of his life (or at least until 2001 when Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid split up).

Innerspace

Scrimshaw and Mr. Igoe (here with a flamethrower adapter on his arm) threaten Jack (as the Cowboy) and Lydia for the location of the second PEM chip.

The Science in The Fiction

Sci-fi films always run the risk of over or under explaining the scientific elements in them. Oftentimes there’s a lot of mambo-jumbo and pseudo-scientific terms used to give a somewhat credible explanation as to why something happens. That’s what happens here, but it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. It actually is the MacGuffin that drives the story along, as both the good guys and bad guys are trying to retrieve the PEM chips used for miniaturization, and more importantly, the ability to enlarge the subjects again. The PEM, or Photon Echo Memory chip works in tandem allowing the subject to shrink as well as grow. Scrimshaw’s company had not  formulated a way to bring objects back, which is why he orders the sabotage and invasion of VectorScope’s labs. One also has to wonder if the filmmakers might not have been inspired by Marvel Comics Ant-Man character in their creation of the technology. In the comics, the superhero, Hank Pym, uses Pym Particles to shrink and grow, which sounds very similar to the way they pronounce PEM.

The interiors of the human body are light years beyond the 1966 sets from Fantastic Voyage. Gone are the miniature radar screens that helped track the submersible in that film. Now Tuck has the ability to attach a small camera to the eyeball, and a listening device to the auditory canal in order to monitor the world around him. The film also takes the audience into some different areas of the body allowing us to see things like Lydia’s womb (please ignore the speed at which Tuck moves around and between bodies), Jack’s mouth and stomach, complete with the lava-like acidity of Jack’s ulcer which eventually kills the henchman, Mr. Igoe.

Innerspace

The heroes in one of only two scenes with all three actors together.

The Final Frontier

This film was Joe Dante’s last science-fiction film to date, if you don’t count Small Soldiers as sci-fi. It still stands as a very fun, and funny, roller coaster ride through the human system. Martin Short is delightful in a film that really allows him to shine not only in his comedic performance but as an actor in serious scenes as well. For me the standout however, is Robert Picardo. His portrayal of the Middle-Eastern Cowboy character, as well as Jack’s impersonation of the same, is a real joy. It’s all tongue in cheek, but he provides enough difference between the two performances to make it some real memorable moments. Overall, Innerspace still provides a lot of laughs, and a fair amount of heart in this weird, buddy film, which can be summed up by Tuck’s quote, “I’m in a strange man!”

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