Fantastic Voyage

One of Arthur C. Clarke's most famous quotes is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Now, if we examine this idea in it's most literal sense it is a pretty solid observation about the nature of technology. After all, it is true that I understand how a smart phone works about as well as a medieval peasant understands how alchemy was supposed to work. However, we can also look at that idea in a more literary way, since Clarke was a science fiction writer and we could easily interpret him as saying that fully imagined science fiction and fantasy are interchangeable on some basic level. In that context I don't think that Clarke's maxim works nearly as well, because there is a real difference between works of art that have a technological tone and works of art that have a magical tone.

We can see both sides of this coin if we look at Fantastic Voyage, a movie from the early 1960s about a team of scientists who get shrunk down to a microscopic size so they can enter a comatose man's body and perform emergency brain surgery from the inside of his skull. This is the sort of fanciful story that could easily be told in a 'magical' way, in that the science behind this movie's premise is not actually that scientific. The idea of a shrink ray seems pretty far fetched even today, so I can only imagine how crazy this movie would have seemed when it first came out fifty years ago.

Actually, it's undeniable that the film does give into magical thinking in many respects: Fantastic Voyage's depiction of the inside of a human body is so abstract that it's obviously medically inaccurate. I don't know much about biology, but even I know enough about human anatomy to know that our body isn't divided into "lava lamp goo" and "swamp" sections - but the crew sees both of those neighborhoods out of their porthole window as their submarine is swept along their patient's veins by his blood flow.

At the same time Fantastic Voyage's story could be told with a heavy emphasis on its scientific plausibility. In fact, that seems to be Fantastic Voyage's intention, since the movie kicks off with an opening blurb about how we're about to enter into a futuristic time where man might walk on the moon, and who knows, maybe one day we'll be able to shove nuclear powered submarines into people's ear holes... The decision to tie one obviously possible development in with an obviously impossible development is a giant warning flag that this movie is going to take itself a bit too seriously. If you're trying to convince the audience that what they are about to see is medically inevitable then you obviously aren't going to push your premise to it's most enjoyable extremes because those will inevitably be scientifically ridiculous.

Indeed, Fantastic Voyage has a clinical tone that utterly belies its basic silliness. It takes its time setting up every far fetched plot development, meticulously showing us the process by which the crew enters the ship, by which the ship is shrunk, by which the ship is inserted into a needle, by which the ship is inserted into the dying man, and so on. The only reason why the filmmakers would take this approach is if they thought they could persuade the audience that they were seeing the future in action, as if being narratively thorough was the same thing as being technically correct.

It's kind of a shame, really, because if you could get rid of all that unnecessary build up and empty jargon you'd be left with a true camp classic. Fantastic Voyage's visual style combines the clean cut chrome look of classic 50's pulp sci-fi with the swinging day-glo patterns of the hippie era. In theory that would make it seem hilariously dated, since both of those styles have long since devolved into kitsch, but unfortunately the filmmakers don't have the sense to mine laughs out of the contrast between the square jawed military men who are monitoring the ship's progress from the knobs-and-colored-lights-on-squar- boxes control room and the ship itself, which is often floating around in the middle of psychedelic Andy Warhol-esque environments. The end result is something that feels uneven when it should be comical; its deadpan sincerity is just well executed enough that it squashes any potential ironic laughter without providing anything better in its place.

Ultimately I think that Fantastic Voyage has the same problem that a lot of sci-fi movies with half assed scripts do - it's full of technobabble when it should full of either techno or babble. If it was actually constructed around sound scientific principles it might be boring but it could potentially be educational; if it gave into it's silliest impulses it would feel more juvenile but it would also be more fun; instead it tried to split the difference by putting a thin veneer of respectability on top of a fundamentally goofy story, thus keeping it from satisfying either master. Fantastic Voyage's filmmakers should have picked either science or magic and stuck with it, but they didn't and the movie suffered as a result.

I understand what Clarke is trying to express with his maxim. He's not totally wrong; we should be as awed by modern machines as more primitive cultures were awed by religious hokum. But there is a reason why we take amazing technologies for granted - it's because when something consistently works there's no reason to stop and think about why or how it works. That's what it ultimately comes down to - workability. Technology delivers on it's promises and magic doesn't. And when an artist conflates the two, they risk creating a work of art that can't deliver on it's promises either. Fantastic Voyage promised its audience that it would be fantastic, and in fact I can see how it could have been fantastic, but it ended up being such a muddle of half baked ideas and images that averaged out to being sort of acceptable. I didn't sign up for an Acceptable Journey.

Ah well - maybe the sequel will be better. I hear that we might go to the moon someday, and a movie about that could be pretty neat.

Winner: Draw

Fantastic Voyage on IMDB