The Underrated Brilliance of Joe Dante’s Innerspace

Innerspace didn't do massive business in the '80s, but Joe Dante's sci-fi comedy is an underrated classic in its own right.

Innerspace should’ve been a contender. Released in the summer of 1987, it appeared to have everything going for it: Steven Spielberg on the poster, the guy who made Gremlins as director, and a fun concept which involved miniaturization, an ex-pilot, and a hypochondriac. Yet when Innerspace made its theatrical debut on July 1, it was met with surprising indifference. American audiences, it seemed, were more drawn to the comedy Adventures in Babysitting, released that very same day.

In 2010, we spoke to director Joe Dante about Innerspaces fate, and he still seemed frustrated about the way its release was handled back in ’87. “The ad campaign was so terrible for that movie,” Dante confided. “It was just a giant thumb with a little tiny pod on it. You couldn’t tell that it was a comedy – you couldn’t tell anything–and it had a terrible title, because we could never figure out a better one.”

It’s certainly true that the poster of the massive digits and the tiny pods doesn’t particularly help sell Innerspace’s concept. But then again, it was going to be a tricky sell from the very beginning. Whereas earlier Dante movies could conceivably fit their story ideas into a single logline: piranhas attack teens (Piranha); monsters attack a cute all-American town (Gremlins); kids build space rocket (Explorers); Innerspace is far more complicated and zany. In an interview with a French TV station at the time of the movie’s release, the best Dante could do was, “It’s the one about the guy who gets small and goes inside the other guy,” which doesn’t exactly sound like the obvious basis for a family movie.

Yet that’s exactly what Innerspace is: a (largely) family-friendly sci-fi comedy told in Dante’s typically manic style. Indeed, Dante originally signed on to the project with the stated aim of making a broad, commercial movie; his previous film, Explorers, had sunk without trace, largely because it came out on the same day as Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert. Producer Peter Guber came to Dante with the concept of an adventure movie about a hero who’s shrunk down and winds up inside another person’s body. Dante was initially reluctant to pursue the idea, since it sounded so much like the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage. Guber then came up with a subtle twist: What if it was a comedy where the straight guy winds up inside the body of the comic relief? Or, as Dante described it years later, “What if Dean Martin was shrunk down and put inside Jerry Lewis?”

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To see how much Innerspace changed during its development, you only have to skim through the first draft, written by Chip Proser in 1984, and the major rewrite penned by Jeffrey Boam one year later. While some of the major elements are in place–the pilot (here named Al), and an incursion that sees the pilot in his miniaturized pod accidentally injected into another guy–the tone is entirely different. Boam, who’d previously written the superb adapted screenplay for David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, spends far more time rounding out his two lead characters. The rather anonymous Al and Joe of the first draft become Tuck Pendleton, a boozy test pilot, and Jack Putter, a permanently anxious supermarket clerk.

Watch Innerspace on Amazon

Boam’s genius lies in the way he focuses so heavily on the interplay between these two characters rather than the story’s sci-fi premise. They’re polar opposites: Tuck, the smooth-talking, hedonistic daredevil; Jack, the clean living milquetoast who cowers at his own reflection. In true buddy-movie fashion, each serves as a crutch for the other’s human failings, with Tuck teaching Jack how to be more spontaneous and daring, while Jack reigns in Tuck’s brusque, hard-drinking tendencies. The twist is that the characters don’t even share the screen for much of the story; they can communicate, but they occupy two very different spaces.

Dante’s genius, then, is in his casting. In order to work, Innerspace needs a pair of actors who can not only sell this farfetched premise, but also hold the screen while effectively talking to themselves for much of the movie. Martin Short, a young comedian then hot off Saturday Night Live and John Landis’ comedy The Three Amigos, is perfect as Jack, a frantic bundle of nerves who still manages to emerge as a disarmingly sweet-natured lead. Short’s turn is broad, physical, and studied with improv, but he manages to moderate his performance quite spectacularly from scene to scene; for all the comic excess, Jack’s still the underdog, and Short makes him easy to root for.

Similarly, Dennis Quaid makes light work of Tuck, given that the actor spends so much time trapped in the tight confines of his submersible pod. Tuck’s the archetypal square-jawed hero, but Quaid gives him just the right hint of regret and human frailty to make him into a fully-formed character. In her own way, Meg Ryan has to deal with certain confines of her own in what could be a thankless ‘girlfriend’ role; but thanks to Boam’s writing and Ryan’s sparky performance, Lydia Maxwell emerges instead as a Taser-wielding journalist who’s by far the most smart and composed character in the whole movie. 

Dante’s almost casual way of bringing a technically complex movie together shouldn’t be overlooked either. Thanks to Innerspaces weird premise, even a regular conversation is loaded with stumbling blocks that might have tripped up a less capable director: the constant cutting between two actors conversing across two entirely different locations; the deceptively complex moments which cut between Jack, hearing Tuck’s voice in his ear; Tuck, looking out at Jack’s view of the world through a monitor in his pod, and then back to Jack, carrying out Tuck’s instructions in the outside world. If that sounds confusing written down, imagine what it must’ve been like to plan, shoot, and edit.

Dante also manages to pull off some of the best action sequences in his long career, with one of the finest set-pieces being Jack’s high-speed ride down a freeway, one hand clinging to a truck, one foot on a red Ford Mustang. In fact, Innerspace is a rare example of an action and special effects-heavy comedy where the set-pieces complement the story rather than overwhelm it.

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Those VFX sequences, created by Dennis Muren at ILM, deservedly won an Oscar in 1988–and it’s surprising how well they hold up almost 30 years later. Created using scale miniatures and rod puppets, the sequences inside Jack’s body are very different from those in Fantastic Voyage. Where the ’60s film imagined the human body as a psychedelic lava lamp, Innerspace is far more fleshy and claustrophobic. Tuck’s tiny metal pod picks its way through throbbing veins and arteries, buffeted by blood cells floating in the foggy plasma. One stand-out sequence involves a pitched battle between Tuck in his pod and a silent assassin named Igoe (the great Vernon Wells), who pilots an agile craft with snapping pincers. Ultimately, all the advanced technology in the world can’t save Igoe from Jack’s roiling stomach acid. 

As you may have gathered, Innerspace doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is a film, after all, which casts Robert Picardo as a flamboyant Libyan tech dealer named The Cowboy. That has Invasion Of The Body Snatchers veteran Kevin McCarthy as a Silicon Valley bad guy named Victor Scrimshaw. That casts the wonderfully off-kilter Henry Gibson as Jack’s boss at the supermarket. (“You’ve got a big future in retail food marketing, and I’d hate to see you blow it now by going psycho on us.”)

Innerspace conspicuously lacks the peril and philosophical drama of a classic like The Incredible Shrinking Man (based on an equally classic book by Richard Matheson), and yet, for all its chaos and outright silliness, this is really a movie about a timid, ordinary guy who gets to throw off his workaday shackles and go on a big adventure. Innerspace spends a lot of time rolling around in its hero’s viscera, but it’s also a movie with a lot of heart.