Cinematic journeys come in all shapes and sizes, but what makes a motion picture voyage truly "fantastic?" Well, if Richard Fleischer's 1966 genre classic is any indication, all one really needs are a dying communist defector, a super secret government facility, a shrinking ray, a miniaturized submarine, and Raquel Welch in a tight wetsuit! A prototypical high concept sci-fi adventure flick, the film is full of dazzling imagination and inventive special effects, creating an engaging adventure that still manages to hold up fairly well. Some elements are a bit dated, but the movie's sense of wonder is palpable, and its lasting influence is evident from the moment the main titles start, all the way until the screen fades to black, taking audiences on an astonishing expedition into the mysteries of the human body.
After a defecting Cold War scientist is gravely injured during an assassination attempt, the government scrambles to find a way to save his life. With a dangerous blood clot in his brain, the only option becomes surgery, but traditional means simply won't work. Instead, an intrepid crew strapped inside a specially designed submarine are shrunken down to microscopic size and injected into the scientist's bloodstream. With only 60 minutes to spare before they return to full size, the group will have to locate the clot and remove it while constantly facing deadly threats from the dying man's own natural defenses and a potential saboteur on board.
The first 38 minutes of the film are dedicated to careful setup, economically yet methodically laying the groundwork for the incredible adventure to follow. After a stylized, dialogue-free opening and an inventive main title sequence, the mission is established clearly, the objectives are conveyed, the dangers are discussed, the crew's roles are defined, and the rules of the process are all detailed, highlighting little bits of information that will become pertinent as the plot evolves. Throughout it all, director Richard Fleischer maintains a slow but intriguing style, building up anticipation for the characters' inevitable entry into inner space. Long, wide shots using up the entire frame of the CinemaScope image are common place, and in a potentially risky move, Fleischer forgoes the use of a musical score until we enter the patient's body, giving the audience a delayed visual and auditory jolt.
Once the fantastic voyage itself really begins, the movie enters a wondrous world of effects heavy imagery and tense dangers. All the while, the story's 60 minute deadline ticks down perilously in the back of our minds, and Fleischer actually has the expedition play out more or less in real time. Each new location brings upon fresh challenges, and one after another the crew is forced to work their way through cleverly designed obstacles that play up the inherent hazards of the human body. Excursions into the bloodstream, the lungs, the inner ear, and even the brain are all given an ethereal, otherworldly beauty, and the pre-computer era sets, production designs, and elaborate special effects techniques reveal a remarkable level of painstaking craft and ingenuity.
Of course, as impressive as a lot of the visuals remain, the effects work isn't without some notable age-related stumbles. Wires holding up the actors are clearly visible in several scenes, and compositing issues with the pre-computer blue screen shots cause a few odd anomalies (at one point, a sliver of the Captain's head is erased). Still, these flaws are all understandable, and given the film's ambitious scope, the results are rather incredible… and appropriately trippy.
A little less forgivable, however, are the actor's oddly wooden and flat performances. Coupled with frequent technobabble and thin philosophical musings, the cast's dry line readings lack personality, making it hard for any of the characters to really stand out. Likewise, though I admire the filmmaker's measured approach, the pacing early on can be a little tedious, and while the step-by-step minutia of the miniaturization process was likely quite enthralling at the time of release, subsequent imitators have robbed these leisurely sequences of some of their luster.
Sure, not every element of 'Fantastic Voyage' has aged as well as others. Yes, there are flaws in the special effects, the narrative is full of clichés, the pace is a bit slow, the acting is mostly ineffectual, there are a few unintentionally funny moments, and the whole thing takes itself a little too seriously -- but as a pioneering example of high concept science fiction adventure, the film is actually kind of perfect. Endlessly imitated and parodied, this is a creative, entertaining, visually mesmerizing, painstakingly crafted, and defining piece of genre moviemaking -- one that fully earns the "fantastic" in its title.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox brings 'Fantastic Voyage' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc housed in a keepcase. After some warnings and logos the screen transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A compatible.
The film is presented in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Shot with Fox's CinemaScope process, the movie features impressive widescreen photography and very creative visual designs that still impress.
The print is in fantastic shape with a light to moderate layer of natural grain and virtually no signs of age or damage. With that said, the film's heavy reliance on compositing work and optical effects does lead to a comparatively rough and grainy look in many of the VFX heavy scenes which predominate the movie's second and third acts. Thankfully, clarity remains strong, and though the movie has a fairly soft look, fine details and textures are apparent, revealing many of the little intricacies in the design work. On that same note, however, the high definition image also brings out a lot of the understandable deficiencies in the 60s special effects, leading to many shots where wires and blue screen issues are clearly visible. Colors are nicely saturated, and once the characters embark on their journey into inner space, we are treated to lots of ethereal hues that pop from the screen. White levels are well balanced, but blacks do look a tad milky in a few shots.
Nearly pristine, 'Fantastic Voyage' makes its way to Blu-ray with a great, respectful transfer free from unnecessary manipulation. There are some inherent weaknesses to the original shooting methods, but fans should be very pleased with this authentic presentation.
The movie is provided with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and a DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included. I primarily listened to the surround sound remix, but also sampled the mono mix, and each track offers a strong experience.
Dialogue is clean and relatively full for a film of this age. The 5.1 remix mostly respects the movie's mono roots, subtly adding a more expansive sense of space with some welcomed directional effects. The main title sequence is especially noteworthy, with creative design work that features a plethora of engaging "sci-fi" effects. The film's inventive musical score is also spread nicely with solid fidelity. Distinct surround use is minimal, however, and most sounds are relegated to the front speakers. With that said, minor ambiance and echoes of music cues do hits the rears, bolstering the soundstage. The original mono track is also very effective, and though it lacks the directionality and enhanced dynamic range of the surround mix, it provides an authentic experience. Both tracks are thankfully free from any major age-related hiccups like hissing, but I did detect some minor background static/crackling during isolated instances.
Whether you go with the 5.1 or original mono track, 'Fantastic Voyage' sounds great, giving purists an untainted mix and those open to remixes a respectful upgrade that avoids unnatural gimmicks.
Fox has provided a solid collection of supplements, including a commentary, a featurette, and an isolated score track. All of the special features are presented in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitle options (unless noted otherwise).
With a wondrous sci-fi premise that is sure to delight both the young and the young at heart, 'Fantastic Voyage' remains a defining staple of its genre. The film's journey into the human body is rife with visual creativity and ingenuity, and though certain elements of the effects work and narrative are dated, the movie holds up very well. This disc from Fox features a great video and audio presentation, offering fans a respectful and authentic experience with virtually no age-related issues. While not packed with supplements, the included commentary is full of worthwhile trivia and the featurette provides some interesting details on the film's award winning special effects. Fans of classic sci-fi adventures are in for a real treat with this release. Recommended.