Why Hasn’t Fantastic Voyage Been Remade Yet?

As we mourn the passing of ‘60s icon Raquel Welch, we ponder why her breakthrough sci-fi classic, Fantastic Voyage, has not received a full-on upgrade.

Fantastic Voyage
Photo: 20th Century Fox

When 1960s and ‘70s icon Raquel Welch died last week at the age of 82, much of the media focus was on her (well-deserved) status as one of the most memorable and gorgeous sex symbols in movie history. A lot of the coverage, in fact, noted that the Chicago native’s substantial talents as an actress, singer, and dancer (she appeared in 30 films, numerous TV series, and hosted a handful of her own variety specials), were overshadowed by her status as one of the era’s premiere pinups.

While she may be best remembered for her turn as a skimpily-clad cavewoman in 1966’s One Million Years B.C., her breakout role came earlier that year in the 20th Century Fox sci-fi spectacle Fantastic Voyage. The film was Welch’s fourth, but the first in which she had a lead role. She played Cora Peterson, one of five members of a medical team who are miniaturized, along with a small submarine, and injected into the body of a defecting Soviet scientist in order to remove a clot from his brain and save his life.

With only 60 minutes in which to work, since that is when the miniaturization process will subside and they’ll revert to full size, the team makes its way via the patient’s bloodstream through various marquee organs—the heart, the lungs, the ear—each with their own dangers and challenges. Meanwhile the crew’s security officer (Stephen Boyd) begins to suspect that someone on board is a saboteur, installed on the mission by the enemy government to kill him from the inside.

Welch doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in the movie, but for the era, she’s no wallflower either. Her character is a capable technician charged with assisting the surgeon who’s going to perform the procedure. Welch and the rest of the cast, which also includes reliable character actors like Boyd (Ben-Hur), Donald Pleasance (Halloween), and Edmond O’Brian (Seven Days in May), all acquit themselves reasonably well considering that they spend most of the movie either on wires or in the cramped submarine set.

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Like many movies of its time, Fantastic Voyage is best remembered for its audacious (if scientifically ludicrous) premise and its technical presentation of the inner workings of the human body, which were recreated through the use of large sets, animation, and rear projection. The 57-year-old movie looks shakier today in visual terms—although one has to wonder how far we’ve really come from matte images to, say, the Volume—but watching it begs the question: Why hasn’t this been remade?

A Sci-Fi Spectacle of Its Time

Directed by Richard Fleischer, whose other sci-fi outings included the Disney submarine classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and the seminal Charlton Heston overpopulation thriller Soylent Green (1973), Fantastic Voyage was conceived by writers Otto Clement and Jerome Bixby (the latter wrote the classic “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone and penned two of the original Star Trek’s most famous segments, “Mirror, Mirror” and “Day of the Dove”).

The story was adapted by David Duncan (The Time Machine) and the final screenplay penned by Harry Kleiner (yes, they had multiple writers on films back then too!), with science fiction titan Isaac Asimov approached to write the novelization. Because Asimov penned the book at a fairly rapid pace, leading it to come out ahead of the movie due to the latter’s production delays, it was a common misconception for years that Asimov himself came up with the premise and story.

Many of the internal organs that the submarine (dubbed the Proteus) travels through were created as full-sized sets, in which a five-foot model of the craft would sail. A full-sized set of the Proteus interior was also built, along with other versions of various sizes. Fox had announced prior to production that Fantastic Voyage would be the most expensive sci-fi film made to date, and with a final budget of $6 million (about $56 million when adjusted for inflation), the picture certainly lived up to that billing.

Critical reception at the time was mostly kind, and Fantastic Voyage won Oscars for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction. Looking at it now, it moves more slowly than modern VFX-driven blockbusters (as do most films made before, say, the mid-1990s), and as mentioned the effects have not aged all that well. But there is absolutely a sense of wonder and even awe still present in the film, the imagery is colorful, imaginative, and psychedelic, and its ticking-clock narrative still builds in suspense and tension.

With Hollywood always on the lookout for another IP to remake or reinvigorate, it stands to reason that Fantastic Voyage would be ripe for rediscovery. The basic story remains sound, from a genre point of view, and the capabilities of modern VFX houses would no doubt be able to bring the interior of the human body to life in ways that the makers of the 1966 movie could have only dreamed about.

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So what’s the holdup? The truth is that Fantastic Voyage has been on the remake “to-do” list for years, but even some heavyweight genre filmmakers have been unable to get it to the starting gate, never mind across the finish line.

Decades of Development Hell

Although there was a short-lived Saturday morning animated kids’ series that ran in 1968 on ABC, it wasn’t until 1984 that development of a new Fantastic Voyage movie , at the time as a sequel, began in earnest. Isaac Asimov was asked in 1984 to pen a sequel novel that could be then turned into a movie. His book, titled Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, came out in 1987 and featured an entirely different story and characters, but the movie itself was never made.

The IP went dormant for more than a decade after that, until no less an auteur than James Cameron expressed an interest in remaking the original film. With his experience in working with water and sets both massive and cramped, as well as his ongoing exploration of the bleeding edge in visual effects, it’s enticing to imagine what Cameron could have done with this material.

Cameron did get as far as writing a screenplay, but after completing Titanic, his mind began to turn toward the development and creation of Avatar. He decided not to direct Fantastic Voyage, although he was willing to produce a film based on his script.

Next up was Roland Emmerich, the king of Z-movies disguised as blockbusters, who actually began pre-production on the movie in 2007. But Emmerich also rejected Cameron’s screenplay and commissioned a new one. We’ve had our issues with Cameron as a writer for sure, but this is still the guy who wrote Aliens and The Terminator, and the idea of the fellow who directed The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day: Resurgence rejecting Cameron’s script makes us both laugh and cry.

The new script got bogged down thanks to a Writers Guild strike, and Emmerich exited the project to make sure that 2012 could meet its title release year. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) and Shawn Levy (Free Guy) both spent some time after that on Fantastic Voyage’s increasingly not-so-fantastic development process, and both eventually dropped out with no results either.

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Enter Guillermo del Toro. Everyone’s favorite genre filmmaker was announced to be in talks about the movie in 2016, with David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) coming aboard to pen a new version of the script in collaboration with neuroscientist Justin Rhodes. While Greengrass and Levy were not especially exciting prospects, del Toro was easily the most intriguing since Cameron’s tenure on the film. While the latter would probably have brought a great deal of scientific rigor to a new Fantastic Voyage, we could easily see Del Toro turning the inside of the brain into a Gothic memory palace while making microbes and white blood cells into nightmarish Lovecraftian monsters. Alas, del Toro reportedly put the project on hold in mid-2017 to focus on completing The Shape of Water, intending to return to it in the spring of 2018.

That date came and went, and in the intervening five years, del Toro has developed, written, and directed both Nightmare Alley and his stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio, released late last year. His next two projects are another stop-motion film, The Buried Giant, and an unnamed live-action effort, but is there any chance it could be Fantastic Voyage?

It seems unlikely at this point. Following Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019, the fate of many projects in the Fox pipeline became murky or lost in development limbo, if not canceled outright. As far as we can ascertain, no one’s ever said a word about any of the scripts that were commissioned for the film, with the exception of David Goyer, who told The Scriptlab in 2015 that he and Justin Rhodes were striving to make it as “realistic” as possible.

Whether the remake ever gets made or not, Fantastic Voyage is still a landmark in the subgenre of movies about shrinking people, which stretches from 1936’s The Devil-Doll to the 1957 masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man, to comedies like 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and 2015’s Ant-Man. Its influence on the latter is considerable, and aside from 1987’s Innerspace (which owes an enormous amount to Fantastic Voyage) it remains the only live-action sci-fi movie to travel inside the human body.

But one thing that all those movies, and any potential remake, doesn’t have is the luminous presence of Raquel Welch, perhaps Fantastic Voyage’s greatest visual effect.