GENRE GIANT: INNERSPACE (1987)

IS

There’s a popular theory about beloved films that particularly seems to apply to the 80’s adventure genre, which is that people enjoy them for one of two reasons; either because the film in question is a genuinely great picture, or because it will always be remembered for the attachment people have to it. For example, everybody loves Raiders of the Lost Ark because of course, its Raiders, but some will always love Temple of Doom that little bit more because they saw it when they were, say, 11 years old, and it had hearts being ripped out and a mine-cart chase and a sidekick their age and IT WAS THE COOLEST DAMN THING EVER AND STUFF. It’s the reason people of our age still rave about The Goonies, a film which features Sloth, some booby traps, and Some Children Who Scream for 2 Hours. They saw it at exactly the right age for it to make an impact on them that will last for their lifetime.

 Goons

A brief moment where the Goonies aren’t YELLING THE CRAP OUT OF EACH OTHER.

The truly great adventures from the era are adored by all ages – Raiders, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Back to the Future et al – but there are a slew of films which our generation will defend to the death, because we’re unable to let go of that attachment from our youth. Whether it’s The Goonies or Short Circuit or The Monster Squad or Labyrinth or The Karate Kid or even (maybe blasphemously) The Lost Boys, we simply can’t apply a critical eye to these movies because it’s not how our eyes first saw (and still see) them. That awesome feeling you had as a youngster, when you wished it was you that fought vampires or monsters or found a treasure map or a robot, or kicked the ass of the guy who bullied you – that’s who you still are, even in a small way, and that’s why we forgive these also-rans for their shortcomings and still talk enthusiastically about them now. We’re still those kids that thought that stuff was, like, AWESOME. We’re just bigger, hairier versions of them.

It’s important that I establish this going into this piece, because I genuinely think Innerspace is an action/adventure classic. I mention this film regularly in the same breath as the classics I mentioned above, and when I do, the most common reaction is “Shit! I remember that!”. I’m always disappointed about this because it illustrates how Innerspace somehow seemed to slip through the public’s consciousness. It’s remembered neither because of its greatness or rose-tinted nostalgia, and really, it deserves both – it is a brilliant film, and came out at exactly the right time to make a lasting impression on folks who are now in their late twenties to early thirties. I’m here to explain why.

To begin with, if you’re going to remake a cinematic property, this is exactly how you do it. Loosely based on Disney’s 1966 film ‘Fantastic Voyage’, screenwriters Chip Proser and Jeffrey Boam essentially stripped the entire story down to its central conceit – miniaturised people inside a person – and threw out everything else, allowing them to craft an entirely new and contemporised concept. Whereas ‘Voyage’ had a crew of medical engineers injected into the body of a scientist in order to save his life, Innerspace instead turned the whole idea on its head. Once the action really gets going – and it doesn’t take long for that to happen – it becomes clear that the life at stake in the film isn’t really that of the host body, but that of the microscopic pilot trapped inside him.

 tuck

The face of a man who has no idea what any of those buttons do.

 Lieutenant Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is a washed-up naval aviator, snubbed by his superiors for his ‘maverick’ attitude, who accepts the lead role in a pioneering miniaturisation experiment. His mission is to undergo a shrinking procedure in a specially designed craft, after which he is to be injected into the body of a rabbit – named Bugs, of course – to not only gain unprecedented biological understanding, but also to make breakthroughs in connecting the pilot with the senses of the host, primarily vision and hearing. Unfortunately, the Vectroscope science team responsible for developing the miniaturising process aren’t the only ones working in the field, and a rogue team invades their lab to steal their research before the injection into Bugs has taken place. Project leader Ozzie escapes with the syringe containing Pendleton’s pod, pursued by one-handed henchman Mr. Igoe (Vernon “I’m gonna shoot you between the balls!” Wells, of ‘Commando’ infamy), and following a thrilling bike vs. BMW chase sequence, Ozzie desperately injects the syringe’s contents into a stranger to save Tuck’s life at the expense of his own. And who is this unwitting accomplice in Pendleton’s narrow escape? A ‘roided-up, 80’s action superman? A savvy intellectual, who can outsmart villainy while dropping pithy one-liners? A streetwise anti-hero? No. It’s hypochondriac Safeway clerk fuckwit, Jack Putter (Martin Short).

 short

Yeah. This guy.

 This is where the film really kicks into high gear. Tuck soon realises that the body he’s in definitely doesn’t belong to a rabbit – although he is in a host of seemingly equivalent uselessness – and makes contact with Jack via the pod’s audio/visual link ups, allowing him to see and hear what Jack does, and speak directly to him (culminating in one of the films funniest exchanges: “No Jack, I’m in here, inside you, inside your body.” “Oh God… somebody help me… I’M POSSESSED!”). A visit to the Vectroscope labs reveals that two microchips are needed to re-enlarge the pod, one of which is in Pendleton’s ship, the other having been stolen during the raid. And so begins the race to somehow retrieve the stolen chip – and a race indeed it is, as Tuck’s air supply in the pod will only last 24 hours.

Of course, in addition to Tuck’s instructions, the hapless Putter is going to need considerable help. And this is where the third key player of the story becomes involved, Tuck’s on/off girlfriend and – natch – investigative reporter Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan, when she was still considered cute-as-a-button rather than trout-faced plastic surgery nightmare).

 meg

Not pictured: hotness

 Using the cover story that Tuck has been kidnapped, Jack enlists her help in tracking down those responsible for the break-in in the hope of finding the chip and saving Tuck before he suffocates inside Jack’s own body – without the same criminals kidnapping Jack to steal the corresponding chip in the pod for themselves.

The brilliance of the concept lies in the fact that the man who, according to stereotype, should be the film’s action hero – the handsome, smart and devilishly charming Tuck – is solely relying on the help of a man who can’t even run a supermarket checkout without having a mental breakdown. It not only provides the audience with a relatable everyman tasked with saving the day, but allows Tuck to act as mentor, conscience and, on several occasions, the voice that smashes Jack’s long-constructed self-doubt – making him truly believe he’s capable of anything – and guiding him through hair-raising situations that would usually (and, in one of the film’s many brilliant set-pieces, almost does) give him a heart attack.

As well as the trouble that Jack finds himself in during his quest to save Tuck, and how well these situations are conceived and realised, they only really add up to half of what makes this film so special. I’m loathe to use the expression ‘amazing for its time’ when it comes to the effects in the film, because it implies that what was considered impressive at the time of release has significantly been improved upon, or outright surpassed by modern advances in computer technology. But in all honesty, the frankly astounding visualisations that create the body-world inside Jack that Tuck navigates are still, by any standards, incredible. Made well before CGI was the go-to method for creating unbelievable effects vistas, and using a combination of practical effects, miniatures and genuine medical photography, it builds a wholly believable interpretation of the inner workings of the human body. The aforementioned sequence – in which Jack finds himself in danger, and his increased pulse-rate almost fatally pulls Tuck’s pod into the hammering centre of his heart – is an incredibly realised set-piece, where the combination of the superb visuals, sincere performances and, lest we forget, absolutely sublime score by the supreme Jerry Goldsmith combine to create a staggeringly perfect moment of entertainment.

The film weighs in at two hours, which was quite unusual for its day. Even so, there’s no shortage of impressive action sequences; as well as the numerous in-body scenes (including an entire fight inside Jack, as Tuck battles a miniaturised Mr. Igoe in his own submersible vehicle, specifically designed to cause mayhem to both Jack’s innards and Tuck’s pod), there are various fights, car chases, escapes and – in probably the standout effects sequence – a brilliant (although scientifically questionable) plot device that allows Tuck to alter Jack’s face, allowing him to impersonate a villain.

 short face

Sorry dude, it’s gonna get worse. Not Meg Ryan worse, but still.

 While Dennis Quaid is arguably the shining star – and shine he does, playing the sort of likeable, cocky asshole persona which is currently giving Robert Downey Jr. a reignited career – the film flat-out belongs to Martin Short. He plays the kind of character that producers would have clamoured for Jim Carrey to play, if the film was made in the mid-to-late nineties; a shouty, exaggerated non-hero who should be incredibly irritating, but instead comes across as the kind of winningly sympathetic dork that an audience wants to root for. His transition in the film – from a completely hopeless nobody to a man driven by self-belief and purpose (no thanks to Tuck’s inner-monologue style encouragement) fits the ‘Hero’s Journey’ role perfectly, and Short couldn’t have – or has ever been – better suited to a part. As well as displaying a brilliant knack for physical comedy and timing, he also layers Jack Putter with a subtle sadness; as the story progresses and he gradually falls for Lydia, hoping she’ll see the man inside him, he slowly realises that she is already in love with the man who is literally inside him. It’s a brilliant, funny and, as unlikely as it might seem, heart-tugging performance – as the hero who isn’t actually the Big Hero – and Short hits every note right on the money.

Now, I haven’t mentioned much of Meg Ryan, but it’s not for any particular reason – she’s absolutely fine in the film. She’s cute, she’s sassy, and she sure as hell helps the exposition move along. But Lydia largely serves to become a bickering point between Jack and Tuck, as the former starts to take a genuine interest in her, while the latter (in one of the film’s more dubious plot points, which I’ll get to in a minute), begins to truly realise how important she is to him. Her character is almost as much of a MacGuffin in the story as the microchips, and is perhaps more suitably lumped in with Innerspace’s excellent troupe of supporting characters.

  bad

Say hi to the bad guys.

 As pictured left to right: Crime boss Victor Scrimshaw, as played by ‘Body Snatchers’ legend Kevin McCarthy (“THEY’RE EVERYWHERE! THEY’RE EVERYWHEEEERE!!”), is suitably sleazy as the mastermind of the microchip theft, Fiona Lewis is delicious as his sex-crazed right-hand (wo)man Dr. Canker, Robert Picardo almost saunters away with the movie as the mysterious ‘Cowboy’ and the mute Mr. Igoe – as I mentioned earlier, played with relish by 80’s badguy du jour Vernon Wells – are all superbly cast, and serve as brilliant foils for our heroes. In fact, mentioning Canker and Igoe in the same sentence leads me to a salient point about Innerspace, director Joe Dante and the legendary Steven Spielberg. Bear with me here.

Joe Dante has never been truly recognised directorially, and probably fairly so. Looking at his filmography, it’s pretty understandable – after all, the film that put him on map was (ironically, given this point) ‘Piranha’, a low-budget ‘Jaws’ pastiche. This was undoubtedly what caught Steven Spielberg’s attention, and led to his directorial on runaway success ‘Gremlins’, for which Spielberg hand-picked him for the job. With that in mind, consider this; Spielberg could have directed both Gremlins and Innerspace himself – both fairly family-oriented sci-fi comedies – but settled for a producer credit instead. Big Steve was on a roll at this point, with box office smashes like Raiders, Close Encounters and E.T. under his belt but, ever the savvy film-maker, he knew that these films needed to succeed by being just a bit edgier than he wanted to go at that point. After convincing audiences that unknown creatures were good guys in E.T., did he want to go and ruin all that work by making ‘Gremlins’? Of course not. And having established himself as the blockbuster director of the 80’s, did he want to make a film which includes – and I’m really not kidding, it’s in there – a throwaway gag involving a sex-mad female scientist and a one-handed villain with a dildo attachment for his arm? No, Steven Spielberg wouldn’t make that movie (no problem with ripping hearts out in Temple of Doom, but hey “that was all George’s idea”). But he sure as hell produced it – shit, the film even has a ‘Steven Spielberg Presents…’ lead in above the title – because Joe Dante was Spielberg’s dark side. He was the protégé that could get away with this stuff. And Spielberg loved it. It’s a real shame that Dante never reached the creative heights of this film again (hello, ‘Small Soldiers’). Although I’m sure a few of you reading this will cry “HEY! EERIE INDIANA WAS AWESOME!”, which it was. It was just a pity that the visionary talent behind both this film and the Gremlins franchise found his eventual home on a spooky kid’s TV show.

I said I wasn’t talking about this film nostalgically, and I’m not. Sure, it’s got its problems; much of the science in it is questionable to say the least. There’s no lack of contrivances that make little sense other that to lead into the next big scene – the ‘you have to have a drink so I can have a drink’ scene springs to mind – and the idea that Tuck can pass between Jack to Lydia (seeing his unborn baby in the process… I told you I’d get to that dubious plot point) during a kiss, regardless of where Tuck is supposed to be in either of their bodies, doesn’t so much demand ‘suspension of disbelief’ but leap directly into your mind and pummel the expression and its definition out of existence. Also, while the effects overall are uniformly excellent, there is one particular scene in the third act involving characters shrunken to half their size, executed by using forced perspectives and (totally fake) dummies, which now comes across as kind of laughably corny. But given the concept, ingenuity, and above all heart of this film, these are minor issues that you should be willing to forgive in the name of an exciting story, exhilaratingly told. Much like the earlier Back to the Future (which wasn’t planned for the story to continue upon release), it even has a purposely open but non-sequel intended ending – “Jack Putter, to the rescue!” – that simply leaves the audience wanting more from these characters. And even though in this case it didn’t lead to a follow-up, it instead invokes the best quality a film could ask for. Re-watchability.

 yay

Yay!

 Innerpsace was sold as a family adventure film in its day, and I suppose the point of this article is to hope that people our age – many of whom have kids of their own – don’t forget this little gem and share it with their own families, when they’re ready. Kids these days are spoiled for cinematic adventure. They have Disney-Pixar leading the charge, for one. They have Harry Potter, and Coraline, Wild Things and Fantastic Foxes. I love all that stuff too, but when I want to watch a really fun, kick-ass adventure I know the first place I always go looking. It’s in that movie where that dude goes into that other dude.

Wait, what?

This article was originally published on rustyshark.com

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4 responses to “GENRE GIANT: INNERSPACE (1987)

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