Innerspace (Blu-ray Review)31 Jul, 2015 By: John Latchem
Stars Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Meg Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Fiona Lewis, Robert Picardo, Vernon Wells, Henry Gibson, William Schallert, Wendy Schaal, Harold Sylvester.
Roger Ebert, in his 1984 review of Ghostbusters, made a point that the film was “an exception to the general rule that big special effects can wreck a comedy.”
As to how Ghostbusters sidestepped this hazard, Ebert opined that “no matter what effects are being used, they're placed at the service of the actors; instead of feeling as if the characters have been carefully posed in front of special effects, we feel they're winging this adventure as they go along.”
Certainly, it’s a tricky balance that not a lot of films can pull off. Back to the Future in 1985 probably pulled it off the best, but I think 1987’s Innerspace also deserves a mention in that regard.
Similarly to Back to the Future, Innerspace uses complicated sci-fi mechanisms to set up an intriguing but otherwise impossible situation as the centerpiece of a very grounded, human story that starts to spin out of control due to having to the script having to deal with the sci-fi elements.
Innerspace is often compared with 1966’s Fantastic Voyage in that both films deal with people being shrunk to a microscopic size and injected into another person. The similarities are apt, but Innerspace is no remake. Whereas Voyage dealt with a team of doctors treating a patient from the inside, Innerspace is more of a comedy of errors in an action-adventure setting.
Plus, there are the advancements of 21 years of visual effects benefiting from the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars in the interim. As Fantastic Voyage did before it, Innerspace won an Oscar for its visual effects, and while Voyage’s haven’t aged all that well, the visuals of Innerspace still hold up, as if the filmmakers were using actual medical footage. Nope, it’s just painstaking model work and practical visual effects from the experts at Industrial Light & Magic.
As Innerspace toes the line between slapstick comedy and sci-fi thriller, there are so many plot developments being thrown at the viewer it almost seems impossible that the film can mesh them all together, but it somehow manages to do so. It helps to view the film via some perspective provided by director Joe Dante on an excellent commentary track that carried over from the 2002 DVD, in which he describes the film as a throwback to Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies in which Martin gets injected into Lewis.
In this case, Dennis Quaid plays the Dean Martin analog, a drunken test pilot named Tuck Pendleton who volunteers for a top secret experiment in which he will pilot a research pod that is shrunken to the size of a cell and injected into a rabbit. But before Tuck can be injected into Bugs, the project is hijacked by bad guys seeking the secret of miniaturization for their own profit-driven motives, causing the lead scientist to run off with the syringe.
He ends up running into hapless and stressed-out grocery clerk Jack Putter, played by Jerry Lewis stand-in Martin Short, who has doctor’s orders to take a vacation to avoid excitement. Out of desperation, the scientist injects Tuck into Jack, thereby making him the target of ruthless killers (so much for avoiding excitement).
It doesn’t take Tuck long to figure out what went wrong, and with a few fancy gizmos he’s able to communicate with Jack, guiding him on a quest to seek out the bad guys to recover the technology that will restore Tuck to normal size before his air runs out.
And if that weren’t enough, Jack has to enlist the help of Tuck’s ex-girlfriend, played by a fresh-faced Meg Ryan in one of her first major roles. This naturally sparks a bit of a love triangle when Jack develops a crush on her, even though he knows Tuck can see and hear everything he’s trying to do.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Tuck is able to transform Jack’s face into that of a notorious arms dealer played with relish by Dante regular Robert Picardo. He works with the bad guys to smuggle technology to Europe, so the switcheroo is the best way to get close enough to get the needed tech back to save Tuck (the manic contortions required to transition Short to Picardo are not without their comedic value, as my cousin would always find the visual effect to be convincing but hysterical.)
Likewise, the bad guys need to get Tuck’s pod out of Jack to make their own tech work, so the movie engages in a back-and-forth of characters coming tantalizingly close to their objectives, until at one point the bad guys send in their own miniaturized minion to take out Tuck, leading to the inevitable but nonetheless effective battle between micro-sized vehicles against a backdrop of human anatomy.
As with Fantastic Voyage’s combination of miniaturization with medical science, Innerspace’s central conceit of a scramble to perfect miniaturization technology turned out to be ahead of its time, with as one of the main villains describes his desire to create a world of medical advancements through nanotechnologies (breakthroughs that are just now being realized in real life).
The fact that the film looks so good in high-definition is a testament to the visual effects teams and their meticulous efforts to depict the inner workings of the human body with a sense of accuracy that also wasn’t grotesque.
While not a huge hit in its day (it was released the same week as the Elisabeth Shue-starring Adventures in Babysitting, and a week after SpaceBalls), Innerspace definitely cannot be overlooked among the pantheon of significant 1980s cinema.
Comedically, of course, the film is primarily a vehicle for Martin Short, coming off Three Amigos and a memorable stint on “Saturday Night Live.” His recognizable shtick is put to good use in service of a storyline that plays to his malleability, as Tuck at times not only inspires Jack to action, but goes so far as to physically manipulate him when needed.
But part of the charm comes from the interaction between Short and Quaid, even though the duo appear together in the same shot for just a couple of scenes (and these are moments the film earns by effectively establishing their screwed up relationship throughout).
Quaid had made a splash in 1979’s Breaking Away, but earned acclaim for his role as a cocksure astronaut in 1983’s The Right Stuff, which established somewhat of a baseline for the “Quaid performance,” which he definitely turns up to 11 here. Innerspace wasn’t a huge hit in its day, so it can’t be considered a full-blown star-making turn for Quaid, but coming two years after cult-favorite sci-fi flick Enemy Mine in 1985, and The Big Easy the same year, it certainly didn’t hurt.
On the other hand, Meg Ryan was a virtual unknown before this film. Audiences would have been most likely to remember her from Top Gun, as the free-spirited wife of Anthony Edwards’ character who served as the sidekick to Tom Cruise. Ryan would co-star with Quaid again a year later in DOA (then was married to him for 10 years starting in 1991), before hitting it big in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally.
For Dante, 1984’s Gremlins is still probably his best-known directorial turn, which he followed a year later with the ill-received Explorers, then episodes of “Amazing Stories” and a “Twilight Zone” revival before taking on Innerspace, which along with Gremlins is probably the high watermark of his career. Later in ’87 he would be part of the team making Amazon Women on the Moon, followed by the uneven The ’Burbs in ’89, leading to an act of self-parody with Gremlins 2 in 1990.