Tuesday 19 August 2008

'80s RETRO: Innerspace (1987)

Tuesday 19 August 2008
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: Jeffrey Boam & Chip Proser (story by Chip Proser)

Cast: Martin Short (Jack Putter), Dennis Quaid (Tuck Pendleton), Meg Ryan (Lydia Maxwell), Kevin McCarthy (Victor Eugene Scrimshaw), Fiona Lewis (Dr. Margaret Canker), Robert Picardo (The Cowboy), Wendy Schaal (Wendy), Harold Sylvester (Pete Blanchard), William Schallert (Dr. Greenbush), Henry Gibson (Mr. Wormwood), John Hora (Ozzie Wexler), Mark L. Taylor (Dr. Niles), Orson Bean (Lydia's Editor) & Kevin Hooks (Duane)

For a while, Joe Dante was the artistically inferior, but darker Spielberg of the '80s; a geek raised on a diet of Looney Tunes and B-movies, given the chance to update his childhood loves for a new generation...

Dante started with killer fish and wolves ('78s Piranha, '81s The Howling), paid homage to The Twilight Zone ('83) with his imaginative vignette, and then hit paydirt with the Spielberg-produced horror-comedy Gremlins ('84). After that came sci-fi kid's adventure Explorers ('85) and this little gem: Innerspace, a 1987 sci-fi comedy inspired by The Fantastic Voyage ('66)...

Dennis Quaid plays "Tuck" Pendleton, a Navy pilot shrunk to microscopic size inside a high-tech submersible, moments before the project's lab is attacked a rival outfit. Tuck unwittingly escapes in a syringe carried by a colleague, who's later forced to secretly inject Tuck into anxious supermarket worker Jack Putter (Martin Short) to avoid capture.

Jack's initially unaware of the miniature man drifting through his bloodstream, until Tuck makes audio contact with him and "the voices" threaten to send hypochondriac Jack over the edge ("I'm possessed!") Once Jack grows to trust his inner-Tuck, the two men have to work together to thwart the ruthless gang of scientists (financed by Kevin McCarthy's Scrimshaw) who want to steal this technology and use it for evil. Of course.

At heart, this is a buddy/chase movie (with a sci-fi twist), buoyantly supported by a high-concept that's done full service. Like Groundhog Day, it's a film that refuses to leave the audience disappointed with how its concept was handled or developed -- pushing its idea into every conceivable direction, and then some.

The impish Martin Short arguably reached his career peak here, in a role that plays to his hyperactive mania. He's one of few actors who can perform pratfalls and act loopy, but somehow make his actions a believable part of the character and not just an act. Quaid has the far trickier role, stuck on his lonesome and having to form a bond with an absent co-star having all the fun in the real world. But his Harrison Ford-style roguish charm lights the screen and the Quaid/Short double-act works surprisingly well. When the odd couple finally meet for the "first" time, it's a surprisingly heart-warming moment.

Quaid's then-wife Meg Ryan plays his characters estranged girlfriend Lydia, who becomes a confidant for Jack and spunky co-adventurer. It's nice to be reminded how cute, perky and pleasant Ryan was in her '80s heyday, which makes her drift into a career wasteland and collagen injections all the sadder.

This being a Dante film, the in-jokes comes thick and fast. The director's "lucky charm" actors Kevin McCarthy (head villain), Dick Miller (a cab driver), Robert Picardo (hilarious as a French cowboy) all make appearances; while there are tonnes of sci-fi allusions to make geeks giggle. Oh, and watch out for the recurring rabbit motif.

Innerspace is an express train of entertainment, finding fresh ways to embellish and develop its concept. The expected dilemmas of a "micronaut" are present and correct (like a battering by red blood cells inside an artery), but the film takes things a step further with Tuck's inexplicable ability to change Jack's face (a painful procedure of cartoon-y facial convulsions and Oscar-winning FX).

Indeed, bearing in mind Innerspace was made in a pre-digital age, the visual techniques employed by ILM are excellent and thus twice as impressive. Even when technical constraints become apparent (a shrinking of the bad guys to toddler size, using forced perspective and children), the silliness of the achieved visual is suitably amusing. Rather that than photo-realism.

Overall, this is a very entertaining and enjoyably chaotic movie that's often overlooked. The concept of tiny people being injected into humans was a sci-fi staple long before Innerspace's release, so I'm sure we'll see a "remake" with even better visuals someday -- but Joe Dante's film is far from a redundant '80s try-out. It's a popcorn movie that delivers winning performances, great effects, a cheeky sense of fun, and makes full use of its ideas. A great reminder of a time when summer entertainment generally ensured the story and characters weren't second fiddle to cutting-edge CGI.

Warner Brothers
120 minutes