Sunday, June 03, 2007

Fantastic Voyage redux

The 1966 science fiction adventure Fantastic Voyage is being reissued as a special-edition DVD this week. It features a surgical team trying to remove a blood clot from the brain of a brilliant scientist literally from the inside. While it's definitely a cheesy B-movie, the Oscar-winning special effects and its stars (including Rachel Welch) flitting about in wet suits make it still fun to watch.

Is the science any good though? Not really beyond basic human anatomy, which the review of the new DVD in the LA Times points out is one of the stars of the show.
The scientific basis is, to put it gently, sketchy, but that doesn't stop the film from adopting the tone of an awestruck biology lesson. The voyage is essentially a series of obstacles, the nature and solution of which invariably illustrating the wonder of the human body. A forced detour through the heart requires the inducement of cardiac arrest to avoid turbulence. Confronted with a dwindling oxygen supply, the crew stops off to refuel at the lungs. Another change of course sends them into the inner ear, which necessitates complete silence in the operating theater outside.
The filmmakers were clearly more interested in the "wonder" than in the science:
Further evidence that the filmmakers are not all that interested in hard science: There is at one point a brief discussion between the surgeons that pits "intelligent design," as it would come to be known, against evolution, with the latter viewpoint assigned to the nominal villain (as in almost all sci-fi expedition flicks, there's a saboteur on board).
I guess that should make Fantastic Voyage a favorite of creationists.

As the review in the NYU Literature, Arts, and Medicine database points out, the "high tech" gadgetry hasn't aged very well either.
The submarine is nuclear-powered, so its progress can be followed like a radioactive tracer. A technician shows its position by manually moving a light around a large, simple diagram of the body. The crew communicates with the outside world by radio, using Morse code. The blood resembles water with lava-lamp globules in it (pink in arteries and blue in veins) to represent corpuscles. "Antibodies" are kelp-like threads that wrap around bodies, and the white blood cell resembles cotton candy.
Isaac Asimov's novelization of the screenplay corrected some of the technical flaws, but nothing can get around the biggest problem: there is no scientifically supportable way that people could be shrunk to virus size and still function. However, as long as you leave the passengers out, Fantastic Voyage-type medicine from the inside may become a reality in the near future. Last March scientists at École Polytechnique in Montreal demonstrated the operation of a remote-controlled device in the carotid artery of a living animal. They are working to miniaturize the machine still further so that it will be able to travel throughout the circulatory system.

As for the movie - watch it for the action, not for the science.

Tags:, . Image: Red blood cells, from NCI visuals online


  1. Thanks for the info on the remake. That brought back memories of the movie Inner Space with Dennis Quaid, Martin Short and Meg Ryan.

  2. I'd forgotten all about that movie. Definitely not serious sci fi :-)

  3. Anonymous10:54 PM

    Thanks. I read the book in 1978 and loved it. i have been looking for the book to share with my children and all. at least I now know where where to get it. Damaris


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