Scientist Jan Benes, who knows the secret to keeping soldiers shrunken for an indefinite period, escapes from behind the Iron Curtain, assisted by C.I.A. agent Grant. However, as he is being transferred to a top secret lab, an assasin makes an attempt on his life. Benes is not hit but he does strike his head, causing a blood clot to form on his brain. Grant is then ordered to accompany a group of scientists including Captain Bill Owens, Dr. Michaels, surgeon Peter Duval and Duval's assistant Cora Peterson. Grant not only must accompany the crew as communications officer, but he also must provide security. The crew has one hour to get in, remove the clot and get out of his body or else they will be attacked by Benes' natural defenses and die.
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
. Starring: Stephen Boyd
, Raquel Welch
, Edmond O'Brien
, Donald Pleasence
, Arthur O'Connell
, William Redfield
, Arthur Kennedy
, Jean Del Val
, Barry Coe
, Ken Scott
, Shelby Grant
, James Brolin
, Brendan Fitzgerald
. Music by: Leonard Rosenman
Most science fiction films, for obvious reasons, are set in the future, as plot lines involving futuristic technology are more credible if set in a futuristic setting rather than in a contemporary one. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Films about aliens visiting earth, whether hostile ("War of the Worlds", Independence Day") or friendly ("Close Encounters", "ET") generally have a contemporary setting, because in these cases it is the aliens, not the humans, who have developed the advanced technology. In any case, a film about an alien invasion set in 2012 is always going to have more emotional impact than one set in, say, 3012.
There are a few sci-fi films, however, which ask not "What would happen if we could develop such-and-such a technology at some future date?" but rather "What would happen if we had already developed such- and-such a technology at the present date". This is normally done for some special reason. "Capricorn One", for example, tells the story of a manned voyage to Mars taking place during the 1970s. (It was made in 1978). This is because the film has less to do with space flight than with a sinister government cover-up; it is one of a number of paranoid conspiracy thrillers made around the late seventies in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Similarly "Fantastic Voyage", made in 1966, revolves around a technology that can miniaturise matter by shrinking individual atoms, but it has a contemporary sixties setting because the plot involves the sort of Cold War theme that was commonplace in thrillers of this era. The film-makers presciently realised that the Cold War would have finished long before human technology could have advanced to anything like the level depicted here.
Indeed, the film starts off like a standard spy thriller. Jan Benes, a scientist from an Iron Curtain country, defects to the West, but Soviet agents attempt to assassinate him. (He may have been named after a real Jan Benes, an anti-communist writer and dissident who had been imprisoned by the Novotny regime in Czechoslovakia; alternatively the surname may have been derived from former Czech President Edvard Benes). Benes is left comatose with a blood clot in his brain. And this is where the sci-fi element comes in. He cannot be saved using normal surgical techniques; the only way to save him is to use the miniaturisation technology. A specially designed submarine, together with its crew of doctors and scientists, is miniaturised and injected into Benes. The team then have one hour to make their way to his brain and remove the clot with a laser. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of the team is a saboteur with instructions to kill Benes.
As many have pointed out, including Isaac Asimov who wrote a novelisation based on the screenplay, the story is full of plot holes, but I won't discuss these here, partly through lack of space and partly because the plot is so fantastical that logic and internal consistency are less important than they would be in more realistic films. The film has other weaknesses, particularly as respects the standard of the acting. The best contribution is probably from Donald Pleasence as one of the doctors on board the submarine, calm and rational yet somehow sinister. Pleasence tended to specialise in playing villains, including a memorable Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice", so it should come as no surprise when he turns out to be the saboteur here. Raquel Welch, in one of her earliest starring roles, looks spectacular in her tight-fitting bodysuit, but lacks the charisma she was to bring to some of her later roles. Stephen Boyd and Edmond O'Brien are both rather dull, as is Arthur Kennedy, whose lines are sometimes difficult to understand. (This was something of a disappointment, as I had admired Kennedy's work in some of his earlier films).
One of the film's themes is a sense of wonder at the miracle of creation and the complexity of the human body; Kennedy's character, Dr. Duval, is particularly given to awestruck philosophising about God and the wonders he has been privileged to see. To inspire a similar sense of wonder in the audience required some very advanced (for 1966) special effects, largely through the use of the use of multicoloured lights, to create an imaginative vision of what the human body might look like from the inside to people who had been shrunk down to microscopic size. Like a number of movies from this period, the look of the film seems to reflect the psychedelic ethos of the sixties; it deservedly won the Oscar for "Best Special Effects".
The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, a director who worked in many different genres and who was responsible for films of widely differing quality, ranging from the near-sublime ("10 Rillington Place") to the ridiculous (several examples). His ventures into sci-fi and fantasy were not always happy ones; he was, for example, responsible for the boring "Soylent Green" as well as the ludicrously bad sword-and- sorcery epics "Conan the Destroyer" and "Red Sonja". "Fantastic Voyage", however, is one of his better films in this particular genre. Despite the leaky plot and some dubious acting, it is a highly imaginative look at an unusual theme in the science-fiction cinema. The exploration of outer space has been done to death by Hollywood, both before 1966 and even more after that date. This is one of the very few attempts to tackle the exploration of what Duval calls "inner space".
Review by James Hitchcock from the Internet Movie Database.