A scientist named Benes (Jean Del Val) has fled the totalitarian states behind the Iron Curtain to relay some important information that he has not written down to the Americans, but on the way from the airport, after bidding farewell to Agent Grant (Stephen Boyd) who has been guiding him through the process up to now, the car driving him to the laboratory is attacked by enemy spies. Benes hits his head badly and has to be rushed to a very special facility to treat him: he is now unconscious from a blood clot in his brain, and as Grant discovers when he is woken that night and taken to the top secret base, the top brass there have to resort to drastic measures to save the man's life...
This science fiction favourite was written by Jerome Bixby (adapted by David Duncan), and at the time was unique in its central miniaturisation gimmick, for that's the plan of the boffins, to shrink a submarine to such infinitesimal size that it can be injected into the bloodstream of the patient and then its crew will set about clearing the clot, thereby restoring the defector to consciousness. The crew of the Proteus make their way around the body, visiting the heart, the lungs, the ear and, er, the mind (they never travel below the waist, you'll be relieved to know) in a guided tour of the innards as rendered by the best high concept special effects the studio were willing to shell out for.
Stephen Boyd is our hero, although it's difficult to see why they brought him along, his useful suggestions at times of crisis notwithstanding, while glamour is provided by beautiful lady scientist Raquel Welch, who gets attacked by the antibodies (which is oddly appropriate as was frequently observed at the time). Arthur Kennedy meanwhile is the chief surgeon given to religious awe and philosophical musings (he makes observations along the lines of every heartbeat "separates man from eternity"), so that the audience felt our heroes had God on their side as they travelled to "innerspace" (not coincidentally the title of a Joe Dante movie which owed this some debt). Then there's William Redfield piloting, and Donald Pleasence as the nervous, atheistic scientist who is continually trying to get the Proteus to give up the mission.
One of those people is a potential saboteur working for the bad guys, and if you have trouble working out which one it is, which apparently everyone on the sub does, then just ask yourself which one of those characters was not like the other and take it from there. There was a clinical air to Fantastic Voyage that adds a little credibility to the preposterous story, as if applying a veneer of scientific method (actual scientists are thanked at the end credits) will make the audience forget all the moments where they think "I find that hard to believe". The lengthy, mostly silent, scene where the submarine is shrunk is fascinating to watch, the tension only broken by the claustrophobic Pleasence. When they finally get into the body, the old science versus nature conflict rears its head, with the crewmembers battling against natural defences and the perils of their anatomical surroundings.
The effects are decidedly psychedelic, echoing the consciousness expansion beginning to infiltrate the popular culture of the sixties: the bloodstream looks like a lava lamp and the vessels and organs are coloured in muted pastel shades, as if the crew are actually making their way through someone's mind - indeed, there was a sequence where they did just that. Maybe a little more imagination could have made Fantastic Voyage exceptional; once you know its one great idea you can second guess the film for the rest of the running time. For example, during the ear sequence the operating room has to be completely quiet, so what happens? Yeah, someone drops the scissors! That said, you can well understand why the film continues to capture the attention of science fiction fans, if only to demolish it scene by scene, especially the ending which falls apart the second you apply the logic of both the real world and the fictional one. Music by Leonard Rosenman. Watch for: James Brolin as a technician, and the great title sequence.