Joe Dante’s InnerSpace: an appreciation

An update on the miniaturisation theme made famous in Fantastic Voyage, this under-regarded eighties sci-fi comedy-thriller is one of Joe Dante's finest hours...

‘Shrinky’ movies are great, and although you can probably count the amount of shows made in this genre on one hand (Fantastic Voyage, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Land of the Giants, The Mighty Boosh and erm, that episode of Mork and Mindy) no sci-fi film embraces the ideas of miniaturisation like InnerSpace.

Released in 1987, Innerspace captures the feel of films released during the mid 80’s, sharing video shop space with Teen-Wolf, Goonies, Lost Boys, Splash, Explorers and Back to the Future. This was a time when Spielberg and co were producing idea-rich, story-driven, high-quality family movies that pushed the creative envelope more than the templated popcorn-fodder of today.

Based on the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace updates the idea of miniaturisation and focuses on Navy pilot Tuck Pendleton, a has-been, down on his luck semi-alchoholic who has been coerced into participating in a secret government project to shrink down people to microscopic size. Supposed to be injected into a test rabbit, lab sabotage leads to Tuck being accidentally injected into hypochondriac Jack Putter, played by Martin Short (who was seriously overlooked for playing Willy Wonka in my opinion).

The chase is then on to get Tuck back to normal size, stop the bad guys and to fall conveniently into the arms of Lydia Maxwell, played by Meg Ryan (who, in my opinion, looks absolutely stunning in this film).

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With a great plot and some the best 80s stars gracing our screens, why does InnerSpace remain such an overlooked masterpiece? The film won an academy award in 1987 for its special effects, and the internal workings of Jack’s body are astounding, with model submarines over-laid onto a background of hemoglobin-packed arteries, resting on audio canals and having a dog fight with the bad guy’s rival submarine in the lining of the stomach.

We even get to see a foetus of Tuck’s son (or daughter) when Tuck is transferred from Jack to Lydia, which – without the use of CGI – really is an astounding piece of special effects work.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante, InnerSpace sums up all that was good about 80s films. From the cliché of an unlikely buddy movie to the fact you can tell the bad guy is a baddy because he has a false hand with a gun in it (and pops kids’ balloons) to the ‘he isn’t dead’ scare-scene, the film is pure popcorn entertainment. The cast seem to be having a fantastic time in their roles and enjoying every minute of a film that always seems to be sunny – ‘twisting the night away’ and other feel good tunes play in the background, the hero gets the girl, and you get to ride off into the sunset in a open top sports car.

Even though Dennis Quaid’s character spends most of his time locked in the cockpit of his capsule, his guidance when he is inside Martin Short’s character – as he slowly turns the neurotic Jack into an action hero – is really good stuff.

With the right amounts of gusto, sentimentality and pathos, this is a mix of a ‘padwan learner’ mixed with Lethal Weapon‘s buddy angle, in which nothing is overplayed, with all the actors taking their respective characters pretty seriously whilst running away from villains, getting attacked by diminutive semi-shirked scientists, or having their muscles and adrenaline overtaken and controlled by a small flying submarine in order to transform them into a 80s action hero fighting machine. Under such a strong cast these absurd ideas actually come off and the film clicks, and seems to work perfectly.

However not all the cast keep a level, serious head. One stand- out character who gets to – quite literally – let it all hang out, in the form of hacker/industrial spy ‘The Cowboy’, played completely for laughs by Robert Picardo in an over the top, scene-stealing turn . Whether trying to sweep Lydia off her feet on the dance floor or having his face-profile stolen by Jack (thanks to some facial muscle manipulation by Tuck’s improbably versatile submarine), the Cowboy really is a larger-than-life character and Picardo’s chest hair is nearly as impressive as his wig.

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Innerspace really is an overlooked classic and – in a world where any scenario or landscape can be created artificially in a computer – the fact that we are taken on a guided tour of the internal organs by the use of lights, filters and models alone represents a truly fantastic voyage into special effects and pure 80s entertainment.