Nevermind how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; how many soldiers can you fit on the flipside of a bottle cap? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The United States' military has devised a way to shrink anything -- tanks, planes, entire battalions -- to microscopic size, potentially redefining warfare as we know it. The technology to shrink things down is less complex than you might think, and some of our enemies have already mastered similar processes. The problem is with instability. After
an hour flat, anything that's shrunk quickly returns to its original size, and that's just not long enough. One of our scientists (Jean Del Val) has at long last devised a technique to manage the stability, but somewhere along the way to report his findings, our unnamed enemies strike. Dr. Benes lies on the brink of death, suffering from an inoperable clot in his brain. Traditional surgery is of no use, but there's always the untraditional...
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The brass at the Combined Miniature Deterrent Force decide to attack Benes' clot from within: assembling a team of experts, shrinking their submarine down to the size of a microbe, and injecting them directly inside Benes' corotid artery. Travel a short distance, disintegrate the blood clot with a few blasts of their laser, and be back home in time for The Rat Patrol: even pitted against the sixty minute time limit, the procedure ought to be a breeze. Of course, the film isn't titled "Fantastic Voyage" because everything uneventfully goes according to plan.
As many times as I've seen Fantastic Voyage over the years, it continues to inspire a childlike sense of awe and wonder in me. The human body isn't some mundane entity we disinterestedly look at day in and day out. It's the gateway to unrecognizably alien worlds too microscopic for our eyes to appreciate. It's a complex system, impossibly daunting in scale and scope. It wields such power yet is all too fragile. The tiniest antibodies, corpuscles, and fibrous tissues pose great danger to intruding forces, even well-intentioned ones like this team of corponauts. Fantastic Voyage deservedly took home Academy Awards for its art direction and extensive visual effects work; the crew of the Proteus may be small, but the immensity of the world they boldly journey into is anything but. The Cinemascope frame is overflowing with such unique, wonderful imagery that it makes the human body feel positively otherworldly. Fantastic Voyage was the most lavishly budgeted science fiction film that Hollywood had produced up to that point, and most
every last one of those dollars can be seen on-screen. Admittedly, some of the seams in the bluescreen work are apparent by more modern standards, but otherwise,
the imaginative set design and daring visual effects continue to startle nearly a half-century later.
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Fantastic Voyage shouldn't be dismissed as an empty visual spectacle either. Its story is simple but perfectly constructed. The film lays out from the beginning the key threats that loom overhead: the ticking clock before the sub begins to return to its normal size, how Benes' immune system will fight against them, the dangerous currents of the circulatory system, and the threat of sabotage from a possible double agent on the team. Knowing the broad strokes of what's to come heightens the impact and suspense when those moments inevitably approach. The crew of the Proteus struggles with a new crisis every few minutes, and every part of Benes' body that they pass through along the way looks like its own, distinct alien world. At no point does Fantastic Voyage settle into a comfortable rut or relent its grip. Its use of music is unconventional and daring; in fact, not a note of Leonard Rosenman's score is heard until the crew enter Benes' body, nearly forty minutes into the film. There's something to be said for its last hour unfolding essentially in real time as well. Fantastic Voyage also assembles just the right cast. Stephen Boyd plays the steeled agent tasked with security, William Redfield pilots the tiny submarine, Arthur Kennedy is the spiritual surgeon whose intimate familiarity with the human body proves invaluable throughout the journey, Raquel Welch plays the eye candy and occasional damsel in distress, and Donald Pleasence memorably stars as the skittish brain surgeon who latches onto any possible excuse not to see the mission through. None of the characters are written with much dimension or complexity, but this cast is able to infuse them with such life that they somehow seem to be more than mere archetypes.
Like most everyone reading this review, I grew up watching Fantastic Voyage on TV, and it's such a thrill to be able to experience this life-long favorite on Blu-ray. This is a movie with startlingly ambitious visuals that continue to leave me wide-eyed all these many years later, and my appreciation for Fantastic Voyage has only grown as I've gotten older. Very, very Highly Recommended, especially in a release this extraordinary.
If I were reviewing a Blu-ray release of a newly-produced film that looked anything like the image below, I'd award it a full five stars without hesitation. That this is a screenshot from a nearly fifty year old film is borderline-surreal.
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Fantastic Voyage easily ranks among the most gorgeous films on Blu-ray, regardless of age. Its colors are bold and vibrant. The level of detail is rarely anything less than breathtaking. Its sheen of grain is so tightly rendered that the image looks extraordinarily smooth, and yet it suffers from no signs of overzealous filtering or processing. There's absolutely nothing in the way of wear or speckling, and the extremely high bitrate helps stave off any missteps with its AVC encode. There is some unavoidable degradation throughout the many optical effects, although it's less pronounced than I would've expected. Some of the compositing aside, the film's ambitious visual effects and set design hold up astonishingly well after a half-century, even under the scrutiny of high definition. I have no criticisms or concerns whatsoever about the phenomenal effort that Fox has invested in crafting this Blu-ray disc. Absolute perfection.
Fantastic Voyage arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Fantastic Voyage features two English 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one monaural and the other remixed to 5.1. I'm very pleased to report to purists that the original mono audio hasn't been compromised at all, sounding every bit as clean and vital as the six-channel remix in the sections I compared. Having experienced the entire film in 5.1, I'm again left with nothing but praise. I can't help but be impressed by the clarity of the dialogue and how flawlessly balanced it is in the mix. Leonard Rosenman's unconventional score sounds wonderful, as do the various bleeps and bloops coaxed from banks of analog synthesizers. The multichannel remix is respectful, at no time sounding forced or gimmicky. Use of the LFE is subtle, grabbing my attention the most when the surgical laser is fired. The surrounds nicely reinforce a number of different effects, among them skidding tires, whirring futuristic machinery, and the hum of the miniaturization ray. No background noise ever rears its head enough to distract. Once again, the presentation richly deserves the highest possible marks I can award it.
The audio options on this Blu-ray disc are extensive, to say the least. Additional 24-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are offered in Castilian Spanish and Italian. There are also lossy, half-bitrate DTS 5.1 dubs in French, German, and Japanese, the latter only accessible with a few button presses on your remote. For those speaking French and Spanish on this side of the Atlantic, Fox has included monaural Dolby Digital dubs (192kbps). Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Spanish (traditional and Castilian), French,
Japanese, Dutch, Finnish, German, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, and most any other language you could name. There are also an audio commentary and an isolated score, and I'll touch on those in a moment.
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- Lava Lamps and Celluloid: A Tribute to the Visual Effects of Fantastic Voyage (18 min.; SD): The disc's lone featurette delves into the immense effort that went into realizing Fantastic Voyage's visual ambition in an era long before CGI. Fox' construction of a full-size submarine, matte paintings, miniatures, wirework, lava lamp-style blobs of plasma, and the difficulty of compositing in full color are among the topics discussed here, and most of the film's standout effects shots are explored in some form.
- Audio Commentary: Film music historian Jeff Bond is featured in both of Fantastic Voyage's additional soundtracks, beginning with this commentary. It's a scholarly and endlessly engaging discussion of the film, most frequently oriented around how the film's extraordinary visuals were brought to life. It's so well-researched that Bond is able to put a price tag on sets, effects work, and the full-size Proteus. There are scores of other terrific notes, such as the cast perilously dangling from wires painted with acid, the differences in Isaac Asimov's novelization, and a cast that went from being too polite to all too eager to paw at Raquel Welch's chest. Very interesting and very entertaining from start to finish.
- Isolated Score: Fantastic Voyage features an isolated score, and I can better appreciate Leonard Rosenman's compositions when I can hear his music on its own. Since there really isn't a note of music until the last hour of the film, the first 38 minutes feature audio commentary by film music historians Jon Burlingame, Nick Redman, and a returning Jeff Bond. It's a wonderfully comprehensive discussion, encompassing not just Rosenman's unique score but the entirety of the composer's career as well as Fox's approach to music throughout the 1960s. There are also appreciated notes about Fantastic Voyage's unused original ending and complex union rules about recycling music on television. It's a very rewarding listen all around.
- Whirlpool Scene: Storyboard to Scene (7 min.; SD): The first crisis encountered by the crew of the Proteus can be seen in storyboard form, as it looks completed, and in a side-by-side comparison of the two. Each clip runs just shy of two and a half minutes in length.
- Trailers and TV Spots (13 min.; SD): Rounding out the extras are a theatrical trailer, a television promo, and two short TV spots.
The Final Word
Fantastic Voyage inspires such awe even with the compromised presentations so many of us experienced on television growing up. This Blu-ray disc is in a class all its own, though, and the combination of such a visually ambitious film and Fox's world-class remaster leaves my jaw agape as few films have. Just a bit more in the way of extras would've ensured that Fantastic Voyage is an essential purchase, but what Fox has offered here still comes very Highly Recommended.