The film is set (naturally) in the middle of the Cold War where Russian and American scientists are battling each other to develop a sustainable miniaturization process, presumably because they know small cars are in coming in the future. Seems they can only keep things shrunk for a limited amount of time and both sides want the secret! And, as there always is, there's ONE MAN in the world who HAS THE SECRET and BOTH SIDES WANT IT!*
<Aside> Am I just perverse or whenever one of these kinds of plots comes along, and both sides fight to get Dr. MacGuffin, wouldn't it be fun if it turns out that the guys a charlatan...or just simply wrong?** Maybe he just wanted to visit Chicago (in which case, the joke's on him)...or maybe the Russians just really wanted to get rid of him—"Here, this guy's single-handedly destroying our economy, let's give him to the Americans!!" Actually, I think some of that was in The Living Daylights</Aside>
Anyway, Dr. Benes has the secret, is defecting to the Americans and a botched Russian assassination attempt leaves him with a blood clot in his brain, and so, rather than giving him a shot of heparin (which would cost $70 in our time), our Best and Brightest Budget-Busters decide to inject a miniaturized submarine, The Proteus (designed by the Italian engineer Arturio Schlerosis), crewed by a team of experts to laser the blood clot, and book out of there before they de-miniaturize and give the guy a migraine the size of the military disbursement.
You read that and go "oh, that sounds so easy" but as with any operation, complications arise, even more than in your average Cialis commercial, and the crew must fight time, tides, detours (The Proteus didn't have Tom Tom), lack of oxygen, VERY LOUD NOISES, and a saboteur among them who's wrecked the laser-thingy—let's see, it could be Dr. Arthur Kennedy (except he was creepy in the 50's, scholarly in the 60's) or pilot William Redfield (who would be creepy in the 70's), "Rocky" couldn't play evil even if you gave her a dueling scar and a moustache to twirl, leaving only Donald Pleasence, who if agent Steve Boyd knew anything about pop culture, was every other bad guy and crackpot in movies during the 60's...when Steven Boyd wasn't playing them.
|The crew has a few hang-ups removing PINK insulation whilst in an artery.|
Or is that plaque?
They all get shrunk down to one micron, and are then injected into Benes' blood stream via hypodermic, and try and make their way up to the brain and its offending clot. Arthur O'Connell and Edmond O'Brien monitor the problems of the crew in their control rooms with the obtuse monitors of blinking lights that go spitzin'/sparkin' if something goes wrong. Sailin' along the old blood-stream, the crew wax philosophic and squabble and brainstorm and Fleischer and his actors all play this with straight faces, no matter how cheesy the sets—the ones involving full-sets look like a particularly tacky wall-paper pattern rather than a cell-wall, while the miniature travelling shots fare considerably better. And there are red blood cells and nasty white ones, and in a Perils of Pauline moment, Raquel Welch is attacked by...either anti-bodies or cellulite, I forget which.
It's crazy stuff, and I remember reading the Isaac Asimov novel tie-in, and admiring how he worked herculean magic to make all the stuff plausible in a practical sense—for example, he wanted to make sure that every last bit of the Proteus gets out of Benes in order to prevent his head blowing up (in the movie they leave the laser rifle, the ship, all sorts of stuff), conjecturing a time differential between the shrinkees and the shrinkers, and making the issue of getting more oxygen from the lungs a LOT more complicated than the movie ever thought to do (the Proteus crew CANNOT breathe normal air, it has to be miniaturized along with them, as explained by Asimov). It's goofy, but it was different from your typical space movie (while maintaining the tropes of sci-fi films). I still remember it somewhat fondly, while also not taking it at all seriously.
|A Fantastic Voyage poster promoting|
its subject of biology
*Excuse me, I went into copywriting mode there...
** Actually, a variation of this "downer" ending was filmed—the Proteus crew did so much damage bumping into the defecting doctor's inner workings that he survives the process...but has forgotten his secret. Insert Nelson Muntz "Ha-ha!" here.