March 29, 2023

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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