Since his debut feature Piranha in 1978, director Joe Dante has carved a cinematic niche that is uniquely his own, with films such as Gremlins and The Howling a mixture of horror and wry, sometimes satirical humour.
In 1987, Dante directed Innerspace, a sci-fi comedy that updated the premise of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, the enjoyably po-faced romp that saw Donald Pleasance, Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd miniaturised and injected into the body of a stricken diplomat in order to remove a cerebral blood clot.
But where Fantastic Voyage had only limited resources with which to create the inside of a human body on a macrocosmic scale, Dante had a considerably larger studio budget to fall back on for Innerspace, which used the then cutting edge effects of Dennis Muren to depict the movie’s gooey interior world.
Radically different from the medical rescue mission plot of Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace instead concerned a miniaturisation experiment that, thanks to the intrusion of despicable arms dealer Mr Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy) and his goons, ends with maverick pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) being injected into the backside of hypochondriac supermarket worker Jack Putter (Martin Short) instead of a laboratory rabbit.
Anxious to get at the enlargement chip now floating around inside Tucker’s body, Putter becomes the unwitting target of Scrimshaw and his henchman Mr. Igoe (Vernon Wells), a stern assassin of few words, whose distinguishing characteristic is a multi-purpose detachable hand that is capable of inflicting both pain and pleasure.
With Tuck’s pod rapidly running out of oxygen supplies, Putter enlists the help of Tuck’s estranged girlfriend Lydia (a fresh-faced Meg Ryan). Together, they concoct an impossibly farfetched plan to reclaim the lifesaving chip that Scrimshaw stole in the movie’s opening.
Looked at objectively, Innerspace isn’t in the major league of classic 80s genre movies like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and it’s not quite the equal of Gremlins, but it’s nevertheless a hugely entertaining movie that holds up surprisingly well.
Its (Academy Award-winning) pre-digital effects are cunningly wrought, and Dante isn’t afraid to depict the inner workings of the human body as the icky, pulsing network of fleshy chasms and arteries it really is.
Fantastic Voyage‘s blood vessels had the psychedelic look of a lava lamp. Dante’s are coursing highways of crimson platelets racing through plasma.
To survive in this hostile inner world, Pendleton is forced to cling onto greasy artery walls with his submersible’s grappling hooks, make tiny incisions in the sides of veins with a laser cutter and, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, make use of the devastatingly caustic effects of stomach acid to dispatch a particularly tenacious enemy.
Innerspace is also distinguished by its fine script, which sparkles with a warped sense of wit. Incidental lines, such as Henry Gibson’s creepy store manager reassuring Putter that he has “a bright future ahead of him in retail marketing” are deliciously written and delivered.
The script also makes interesting use of the concerns of its era. Kevin McCarthy’s monologue about nuclear weapons: “everyone’s got ‘em. Everyone’s afraid to use ‘em” is an early hint that the Cold War paranoia of the previous decades is on the wane, only to be replaced by a newer, more subtle anxiety about the ubiquity of technology and how it could invade our bodies.
Certainly, the technology depicted within the film, in particular the GPS-like computer system that automatically maps the interior of Putter’s labyrinthine body, foreshadows some of the inventions we take for granted today, even if we haven’t quite found a way to miniaturise submersible pods just yet.
It’s odd, given the success of Gremlins and the involvement of Steven Spielberg as producer, that Innerspace was such a flop for Dante. Whether it was mis-marketed, released at a bad time, or the movie-going public simply wasn’t ready for miniaturisation comedy isn’t clear. Certainly, Disney had a far greater hit with the thematically similar, but less interesting Honey, I Shrunk The Kids two years later.
Whatever the reason, Innerspace is a film that deserves more attention, and certainly ranks among the more interesting entries in the voluminous number of family-friendly pictures that appeared throughout the 80s.