Innerspace: Joe Dante’s Badly Titled Fantastic Voyage Turns 30

Joe Dante knew he’d made it in Hollywood when a grip on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) pointed out which corner of the soundstage Errol Flynn once used as his own personal bathroom. His career has always walked that same line between profound and profane. Dante got his start as one half of a two-man trailer department for the legendary Roger Corman, cutting art-house imports from Truffaut and Fellini before lunch, then grindhouse-ready exploitation like T.N.T. Jones (tagline: “She’ll Put You in Traction!”) in the afternoon. On Gremlins (1984), Dante’s biggest hit to date, he slyly made his cute/annoying animatronic hero, Gizmo, the same color as executive producer/biggest cheese Steven Spielberg’s dog. But when Warner Bros. asked him to remove the most comically bleak monologue ever sneaked into a Christmas movie, he wouldn’t budge. In 2007, Dante put his unending love (and collection) of trailers to good use with the part-film archive, part-video store clerk Trailers From Hell, gleefully recommending everything from The Magnificent Seven to Battle Beyond the Stars, with enough filmmaker-provided trivia to enlighten viewers that they’re essentially the same movie. 

Joe Dante has never quite reached name-brand status as a director; the only movie he’s ever had complete control over was Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990; also, to date, the only movie in which the villains break the fourth wall until Hulk Hogan demands it rebuilt). He’s a self-professed member of the VHS class, whose work found more fans on the weekly pilgrimage to Movie Gallery than the multiplex, though he doesn’t mind his fate. As he told Paste Magazine, “I’m a firm believer that you really don’t know the worth of a movie until at least a couple of years have gone by.”

Thirty years have gone by since Dante’s most commercially minded movie reached audiences — or, if we’re being honest, didn’t. To this day, he blames the name.

Innerspace began as the brainchild of producer Peter Guber and, despite being about a miniaturized human having adventures within the body of a human-sized human, it allegedly had nothing to do with Fantastic Voyage (1966). But Joe Dante couldn’t see much of a difference and neither could Dead Zone screenwriter Jeffrey Boam. Dante left and Boam repeatedly turned down the rewriting gig until he decided to throw most of it out, lean into the loony concept, and draft something almost relentlessly entertaining. Boam’s Innerspace script, in turn, lured the likes of John Carpenter, Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg. Obviously Spielberg (see: “biggest cheese,” Jurassic Park, your childhood) nabbed it, but he didn’t want to direct. So, he gave it to a director in his Amblin stable, the only one on record as also not wanting to direct it. But that was the old draft. Boam’s version fit Dante like a glove. The cartoon kind, with three fingers, that come standard issue to every animated animal with a gift for wisecracks and wreaking havoc.

Joe Dante’s Innerspace begins with a trick. Take too long picking your popcorn size and you’d miss it, but it sets the tone for everything to come. The opening credits play out over a crystalline abyss shot in macro. Light refracts endlessly, spilling rainbows across fissure and facet as Jerry Goldsmith’s score spells shorthand for the unknown, the alien. Then bourbon trickles over the ice and our sauced hero picks up his drink. While it handily establishes the molecular conceit of the movie, it’s also a fair warning: Just when you think you’ve figured out what you’re looking at, Innerspace pours in the bourbon and turns it upside down.

It starts as Top Gun, complete with Meg Ryan (who actually gets to do something this time) and a hotshot pilot whose body is bouncing checks his ego won’t stop writing. This professional burnout — played by Dennis Quaid like an impossibly young, impossibly reckless Harrison Ford — loses his love and his livelihood in one night of bitter, drunken revelry. His only shot at redemption is a high-risk experiment in miniaturization, flying into the bloodstream of a—

Then we meet Martin Short as a grocery store cashier with more than a few chips in his China. He’s a hypochondriac (which his doctor appreciates) and a pushover (which his boss appreciates) and an all-around wimp of a guy (which his workplace crush who’s stringing him along appreciates). Out of nowhere, Innerspace becomes that ‘80s movie about a geek overcoming his neuroses you kind of remember seeing last Sunday on WGN—

Then a squad of corporate spies in matching jumpsuits raid the lab, interrupt the experiment and knock out the entire staff, trying to find the microchip/MacGuffin that makes the shrinking possible. But an intrepid scientist runs off with the pilot, banged-up but none-the-wiser inside a test tube—

But then the bad guy from Commando, here a semi-robotic hitman with interchangeable arms and a license plate that says “SNAPON,” hunts him through the mall from Commando—

The scientist injects Dennis Quaid into Martin Short and the movie really kicks into high gear.

By the time a rousing Rod Stewart rendition of “Twistin’ the Night Away” takes us to the credits, Innerspace manages to be a buddy comedy, a spy thriller, a chase movie, an off-kilter romance, an effects-driven sci-fi showstopper, and a body-swap farce with light body horror. It includes spies, cowboys, drunken dance numbers, digestive fluids, Bugs Bunny, a mech-suit, a briefcase full of bad guys, plenty of slapstick, and the most literal representation of heart-pounding suspense ever put to film.

On Innerspace, Jeffrey Boam mined a concept for all it was worth, then mined a few more at the same time. It’s a skill he’d demonstrate again on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which a wise friend of mine once pointed out includes an action sequence on almost every form of transportation possible in 1938. But while he laid the hectic groundwork, no director could’ve made Innerspace work like Joe Dante.

The action is breathless, but never suffocating. The effects are jaw-dropping (it took Dante mailing Roger Ebert a prop platelet to convince the critic it wasn’t shot inside an actual human body) but never overwhelm. The very concept thumbs its nose at traditional blockbusters — the tough-as-nails hero is trapped helplessly inside the nebbish comedic relief — and Dante never forgets it.

I used to play a writing game with friends where we’d start with an agreed-upon prompt, then pass the story around, each adding only one sentence. If you played that same game with Fantastic Voyage as the jumping-off point, added a little oversight and a lot of inspiration, it’d look like Innerspace. Well worth watching and remembering in the age of reboots.

Just a shame they never came up with a better title.

Jeremy Herbert lives, human-sized, in Cleveland.

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