As with all of his films, Joe Dante's most engaging comedy, stems from a love of fantasy films, science fiction, and of course, Warner cartoons. Coming just before the end of conventional optical special effects, Innerspace, as described in the extremely entertaining and informative commentary track, is like a Jerry Lewis - Dean Martin movie, if you shrunk Dino to the size of a germ and injected him into Jerry's bloodstream. The main difference is, this is funnier than any Martin-Lewis picture.
It didn't sound very promising at first: Fantastic Voyage (1966) was this very glossy, thoroughly-hyped Fox film that all of us Junior High School kids thought was sophisticated, until we grew up. When Hollywood revisits old material like this, it's usually in the form of clunky remakes that miss the whole point of the original, like The Blob, or Invaders from Mars. At their worst, they can hopelessly befoul what were originally wonderful movies, as with The Time Machine).
Dante and writers Jeffrey Boam & Chip Proser reinvent Fantastic Voyage as a wacky chase comedy. Dennis Quaid spends about 9/10ths of the film all by himself in the tiny submarine, floating inside the perfectly cast comedian Martin Short. It's a standout role that encourages Short to retain audience allegiance no matter how silly he behaves. Jack Putter is a put-upon everyman, a neurotic schlemiel who's helpless in a crunch and hopeless with the women in his life, namely, the amusing Wendy Schaal. If the fantasy concept wasn't so strong, you'd think the whole show was an excuse for Short's comedy bits, like the ridiculous dance he does. It should come off as gratuitous mugging, but isn't, due to Short's charm and lack of pretension. This is indeed a Jerry Lewis role, but done well.
Joe Dante excels at telling old stories with a quirky eccentricity, as in The 'burbs. He can also make gleeful cynicism work (Gremlins) and is one of the few filmmakers in the 80's to get seriously sentimental with teenaged characters, in Explorers, and the later Matinee. Such a technically complicated story as Innerspace has to be told in a straightforward manner, and the setup with Randy Quaid and the miniaturization project takes a while to get going. Tuck Pendleton's apartment with its robots and Warner cartoon toys is rather lazy, but the fresh smile of his girlfriend, charmer Meg Ryan, tides us over. 1
Once Quaid is inside Short, Dante's storytelling skills get a workout as he establishes the ground rules for his premise. Quaid expects to be tooling around inside the bloodstream of a rabbit (according to the hilarious roadmap graphic on his control panel) and every part of their 'symbiotic' relationship has to be explained: he taps into Short's inner ear to be able to hear what Short hears, and finds he can talk to him. This results in a good gag where Short thinks he's possessed - only to have patient doctor William Schallert assure him that infernal demons talk through the people they possess, not to them. Quaid also clamps a video receiver onto the optic nerve, and Short's pantomimed reaction to the sudden pain behind his eye is fall-down funny.
The complicated spy chase is mined for every bit of comedy potential. Kevin McCarthy and Fiona Lewis are a looney pair of ridiculous mad doctors, aided by stoic Vernon Wells and Mid-Eastern 'cowboy' Robert Picardo. Nobody assembles a fun cast as well as Joe Dante, and from the bits on up, he utilizes people from his favorite old monster movies along with more contemporary faces that comprise his stock company: Dick Miller, Orson Bean, Archie Hahn, Henry Gibson, Kennety Tobey, the late, wonderful Kathleen Freeman, Joe Flaherty and Andrea Miller. Frequent Dante DP John Hora does very well with the straight-man role of a scientist. Robert Picardo is of course a standout, making an unpromising-sounding character into a riot. In one particularly gratuitous but very successful gag, some excuse is made to make Short look just like Picardo's cowboy character, and for a few minutes, Picardo is playing the Martin Short role. Dante keeps the screwball antics at a high pitch.
Critics who had less than ecstatic responses to Innerspace cited its running time, which is a bit long for a comedy. The movie's so tightly packed with incident, that to shorten it something major would have to go. I'm glad they didn't - Dante's recent Small Soldiers shows signs of compromise both in content and cutting, which doesn't augur well for his special kind of moviemaking. Innerspace does have kind of a sloppy end scene, that needed to calm down - but opts instead for Short quitting his crummy job and rushing off to save Quaid and Ryan again, as a newly-born 'action man'. Unlike the surprises elsewhere, this seems rather flat, and since it makes the last impression, may have unfairly influenced the reviews.
Warner's DVD of Innerspace is a terrific 16:9 transfer that greatly improves on the already nice-looking laserdisc. The clever ILM special effects for the interior of the body are rich with detail, even in dark shots. ILM foundation brick Dennis Muren was one of four Oscar winners for effects on the movie, and participates in the disc's commentary track.
Joe Dante, who's always a funny host, guides the track with producer Michael Finnell, and actors Kevin McCarthy and Robert Picardo. It's a great mix. Finnell and Dante have no problem digging equally into big ideas and details (nobody could think up a better title; Steven Spielberg got involved in the casting) and provide a constant flow of humor. They also point out dozens of in-gags that might slip by, like Dante's hero Chuck Jones as a supermarket patron, and a Body Snatchers seed-pod in Kevin McCarthy's greenhouse-like meeting room.
When McCarthy joins in the commentary, he's a little slower in the joke department, but delighted to be there. Picardo arrives along with his character onscreen, and he's hilarious, talking about the ridiculous costume and the lengths he had to go to to make the Cowboy work as a character. He even slips in a sly joke about Star Trek: the Next Generation. The straight man of the piece is Dennis Muren, who starts off as the butt of jokes - "Oh look Dennis - is that another Fat Cell?" Muren deadpans his way through the effects explanations sounding like an ILM corporate spokesman, but by the end manages a couple of clever remarks of his own.
The soundtrack is particularly well-mixed, with all of the director's favorite Looney Tunes sound effects brightly billboarded. Innerspace is a fine Dante picture. It's to be joined soon on DVD by special editions of Gremlins, and Gremlins Two.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This was one of Meg's more attention-getting early roles; Savant
doesn't follow the gossip stuff very closely, but I believe Innerspace is known as the show on which
actors Ryan and Quaid got together as a couple.