Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1987) Part One

7. Innerspace

Released in 1966, “Fantastic Voyage” would capture the imagination of many a budding nerd. Some of this is owed to its fusion of espionage thrills and then-advanced special effects, I think its premise is what really made an impression. The idea of a sci-fi exploration story that goes very small, inside the labyrinthine capillaries of the human body, instead of very large remains novel. “Fantastic Voyage's” cult following has led to a number of extended homages across pop culture. One of the most well-known homages is 1987's “Innerspace.” Original screenwriter Chip Proser admitted the connection. Conceived by Proser as an action/thriller, the script was offered to Joe Dante, who turned it down. After Steven Spielberg came on as a producer, Jeffrey Boam was hired to rewrite the film as a comedy. Presumably because he had experience combining comedy and special effects, Dante took the gig the next time they offered it to him.

Lt. Tuck Pendleton has managed to burn all his bridges, his professional connections severed by his drunken behavior and his personal connections, to girlfriend Lydia, severed by much the same. His last chance has Tuck piloting a top secret craft: A unique submarine meant to be shrunken down and injected inside a living being. Originally meant for a rabbit, an attack by rival scientists and spies working for the Soviets, sees the microscopic Tuck being injected inside a man as a last ditch effort to protect the research. That man is Jack Putter, an exceedingly nervous Safeway clerk. Jack thinks he's crazy when Tuck first establishes contact but the two soon form a partnership. They meet back up with Lydia, try to escape the bad guys, and get the sub out of jack before Tuck's oxygen runs out.

As high concept as its premise is – Dante says the film was pitched to him as “what if Dean Martin was shrunken down and injected into Jerry Lewis?” – “Innerspace” is ultimately even more simple than that. This is a buddy movie. Two dudes that couldn't be more different are thrust together on a wacky adventure. Tuck is a handsome and capable military hero but he's also an alcoholic asshole. Jack is a gangly, nervous wreck but he has virtues of his own. Inevitably, the two teach other. Tuck learns to be nicer to people and value them more. Jack learns to stand up for himself and not to be ruled by his fears. Pretty much from the moment the differences between the two are introduced, you can see where this is headed.

Functioning largely as a slightly quirky adventure flick to start, once Martin Short's Jack is introduced, “Innerspace” becomes a full-blown comedy. And, yeah, sometimes it's actually pretty funny. Jack's baffled reaction to the strange things happening to him are among the movie's funniest gags. When he first hears Tuck's voice inside his head, he wonders aloud tot he people around him if they can hear that too. His doctor's deadpan dismissal of the possibility of demonic possession is also a solid joke. Later, the movie mines some okay chuckles out of the way Tuck influences Jack's personality, telling him to drink a little or to boss Lydia around some. All of this stuff made me chuckle.

However, “Innerspace” has a lot of gags that verge too close to being extremely loud and obnoxious. Among the film's many odd digressions is Tuck somehow causing Jack's face to change shape. This leads to an extended sequence of Martin Short's face expanding, twisting, and generally freaking the fuck out. The movie is so amused by this bit of special effects-aided mugging that it does it a second time, not too long afterwards. There are several moments of way-too-broad comedy like that throughout the film. Such as an overly long bit that has Jack dangling off a moving vehicle, eventually balancing atop the windshield of a speeding convertible. While Dante effortlessly combined special effects and comedy in “Gremlins,” it would appear the balance is off-kilter here.

The special effects, it must be said, are extremely good. The interior world of the human body is brought to life vividly in “Innerspace.” Veins become giant streams of blood cells, rushing towards enormous and fluctuating valves. Subcutaneous layers of fat become a wall of squishing orbs. Throats, lungs, and bowels become massive, fleshy tunnels. The interiors of the eye and ear are blown up to cavern-like scales. The effects in “Innerspace” – a seamless combination of miniatures, models, and camera trickery – are so good that you kind of take them for granted. The movie sucks you so totally into its world, that you just think this is how the inside of the human body looks. The Academy was impressed too and would give the visual effects team an Oscar.

Joe Dante's previous films certainly had scenes in them that could be classified as action sequences. However, “Innerspace” sees the director making something like a proper action movie for the first time. The film's first half-hour features several elaborate chase scenes. Ozzie, the poor scientist in charge of leading the project, is chased across the city by Mr. Igoe, the bad guy's main muscle. This results in a run through a massive canal and a bicycle chase leading into a mall. Dante's direction becomes highly cinematic here, the camera attacked to wheels as they careen through traffic. Igoe's primary gimmick – replacing his hand with various robotic attachments, including a gun disguised as a glove – also feels like something out of a Roger Moore Bond flick. You can imagine Dante being attracted to “Innerspace” because it gave him a chance to play in a sandbox like that.

In fact, “Innerspace's” aspirations to be, somewhat ironically, as big a story as possible is one of its serious flaws. The film's script is a bit too busy for its own good. After Tuck/Jack is reunited with Lydia, there's a pretty clear path to a logical conclusion. Instead, the film throws in another obstacle for our heroes. The ship can't be returned to normal size without a special mircochip, a MacGuffin that attracts a whole team of antagonists. In an especially zany gag, two of those enemies end up shrunk to the size of children. There's a battle inside Jack's body, Igoe wearing his own high-tech suit as he battles Jack's submarine. For a brief amount of time, Tuck actually ends up inside Lydia's body, a shift that is totally unneeded. While some of this stuff is admittedly fun, none of it is essential. Mostly, these additions end up expanding “Innerspace's” run time to two whole hours, much too long for a film of this tone.

Maybe a big reason why “Innerspace” quickly wears its viewer out, long before the film is over, is because neither of its stars are the most appealing character. As a leading man, Dennis Quaid has never really caught on with me. There's just something insincere about him, something unlikable that I can't quite put my finger on. On paper, that quality might actually make him a good pick for Tuck Pendleton. After all, the whole point of Tuck is that he's a drunken lout that alienates the people around him. Quaid leans into that element a little too hard though. So, yeah, you believe him in the early scenes, when he's sloshed and picking fights. He's too convincing there, making his later scenes – when we are suppose to forgive the guy for his mistakes – harder to believe.

Starring opposite Quaid is Martin Short, another performer I've never been a big fan of. I've always found Short's schtick – the screaming, the flailing, the over-the-top mugging – to be incredibly grating. And, yeah, “Innerspace” does absolutely give him many opportunities to do that stuff. A nightmare coming true results in a full-blown panic attack. He shrieks and contorts as it seems his own body starts to go nuts. He even reprises his famous Ed Grimley dance at one point. My patience for this stuff is pretty thin. However, Short does produce laughs when he actually tries to laugh. When playing Jack as someone on the verge of a mental breakdown, nervous but not manic, Short is fairly amusing. It's a line I wish he towed for more of the film.

In fact, “Innerspace” might have been improved if Meg Ryan was the protagonist. You feel bad for Lydia throughout the film. She's in love with Tuck but he's a tool, resulting in a necessary separation that never is totally satisfied with. So it's definitely disappointing when she's tossed back into a relationship with him, even if he's supposedly changed for the better. Her character, an adventuring journalist that is determined to get to the bottom of things, is pretty fun to follow. You enjoy watching her get to the bottom of things, digging into leads and confronting the villains. Ryan is having fun in the part and it's entertaining to watch.

“Innerspace” definitely reflects Dante's sense of humor, through a few Bugs Bunny references and the cartoon-like scale of some of the gags. But it's mostly through the colorful supporting cast, many of which play bizarre characters, that the Dante-esque sensibility emerges. Robert Picardo plays the Cowboy, a fence that sells U.S. technology to the Soviets that is also enamored of cowboy imagery. This is a very odd character, fully embodied by Picardo at his most outrageous. Kevin McCarthy appears as Victor Scrimshaw, a crime boss that always dresses in white and has taught his dog to eat at the breakfast cable. Dick Miller shows up too, as a sarcastic cab driver. These colorful characters are really were “Innerspace's” weird sense of humor shines.

Featuring another grand Jerry Goldsmith score that is perhaps better than the movie accompanying it, “Innerspace” can't quite combined its competing tones into a satisfying whole. The lack of a wholly likable lead, as well as an overstuffed screenplay, are partially responsible for this. The film is most entertaining when it allows the viewer to marvel at its fantastic special effects or when Dante's exceedingly bizarre digressions overtake the film's narrative needs. The resulting film didn't quite connect with audiences in 1987. The initial advertising emphasized the adventure aspects, leading to a re-release that focused on the comedy aspects that also wasn't very successful. However, as with Dante's other films, the movie would attract more of an audience on video, leading to a cult following of sorts. I can't quite join in with that crowd. There's parts of “Innerspace” I admire but the movie does totally work for me either. [Grade: C+]

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