14 June 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: SPIELBERG IN THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: noted mystery-spinner J.J. Abrams cements his status as Major Popcorn Movie Director with Super 8, but another big name is attached to the film: producer Steven Spielberg, in whose specialised breed of suburban-bound family-friendly thrillers Abrams's film is trafficking. Of course, Spielberg has long since made a secondary career of boosting newish directors whose films are in the same wheelhouse as his PG adventures. (And yes, I should absolutely be reviewing Gremlins, given everything, but I decided it would be more sporting to go with something I haven't seen, like, 10 times already).

Somewhere along the way, Joe Dante's name got lost in the shuffle: an patently unfair fate for the man who directed the best first-generation Jaws ripoff, the best werewolf movie of the 1980s, and one of the all-time great horror comedies. And yet I ask you: when was the last time you heard of a Joe Dante picture coming out, and knew that fact meant something special?

Back in the day, even a "lesser" Dante movie could still be a pretty fun time out, as I found upon watching, for the first time, his 1987 Innerspace; it was one of several projects that found Dante and super-producer Steven Spielberg working together in the 1980s, and not remotely the most personal of them, but even if it is remembered nowadays for winning the Best Visual Effects Oscar and being a crypto-remake of another movie that nobody much these days has seen, Fantastic Voyage, that is itself not at all a fair historical judgment for a movie that, despite not escaping the decade intact, is still one of the more playful and inventive effects-driven popcorn movies of its era.

In brief, the movie is about Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid), one of those fuck-up hotshot pilots so beloved of writers looking to make stories about adventurers out on the bleeding edge. Tuck is a drunkard; Tuck is a playboy; when we meet Tuck, he has finally ruined things with his more-than-a-fling, not-quite-a-girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan). Four months later, Tuck is at the center of a remarkable experiment in miniaturisation: he's shrunk to a size barely visible through a magnifying glass, and injected into a rabbit.

Except for the rabbit part: in the grandest high-concept fashion, a raid by a rival R&D corporation, a colossally Ee-vil one, ends with little microscopic Tuck shot into the first warm body that will serve as a safe haven from the grasping clutches of mercenary cyborg Mr. Igoe (Vernon Wells), and Dr. Margaret Canker (Fiona Lewis). This happens to be the body of hypochondriac grocery store cashier Jack Putter (Martin Short), and once Tuck has been able to hack into Jack's optic nerve and inner ear, he's able to communicate with his new host, to find out what the hell is happening and how to fix it before Tuck's air supply runs out. That this involves Jack having to team up with Lydia will come as, I pray, no surprise to anybody.

Having mostly nice things to say about the movie, I think it is only right to start out with the one big problem I do have: Innerspace presents itself as being a sci-fi adventure-comedy, and it surely thinks it's a sci-fi adventure-comedy, and while the sci-fi is pretty hard to fault for what it is, and the adventure is aces for a high-concept 1980s family movie, the comedy is awfully wan and reedy. Mayhap this is just a natural distaste for Martin Short getting in the way; but surely I'm not alone in finding Short's characteristic mode of spastic nebbish humor to be damn hard to take in more than tiny doses, even when it's as relatively toned-down as it is in this movie? Or perhaps I'm just a grinch. But there's a whole lot of Short in the picture, particularly that Quaid spends almost the whole movie sitting in a capsule with a lot of blinking lights, and Short is obliged to do all of the heavy lifting of the plot. The fascinating thing is that it's not even Short per se: the "buddy movie" elements of the film, just him and Quaid's voice (or the other way around), in fact shows off the actor in quite a good light - both of them, really, the chemistry between the two is top-notch, something that should not be even a little bit possible given that the actors were present together in only one scene at the end. It's really just Short in comedian mode that drags and makes the movie feel like some TV sitcom gone horribly awry, and if the film were merely an adventure with comic elements rather than a full-on hybrid of genres, Innerspace would certainly be a lot sturdier than is the case.

For, all in all, what's there is cherce, as the fella said. It's no secret that the film exists in no small part to show off some razzle-dazzle visual effects; those effects are very razzly-dazzly, though, an airtight argument for those of us who are miserable old cranks that reflexively prefer old-school practical effects to smooth, shiny CGI. The inside of Jack's body is a fantastic place in the most literal sense, full of red blood cells made out of Jell-o, squishy, wet organs, a beating heart valve that looks like the gaping maw of some massive alien. There's hardly a single point at which the effects are operating any less than 100% (by which I mean, the inner body effects; the miniaturization effect is quite altogether unremarkable), and everything is so unmistakably physical, it's not half difficult to believe the illusion. It's one of the finest visual effects movies of the late-'80s, I'd be inclined to say, and say what you want about all the toys available to the modern filmmaker, the late-'80s were a great time for visual effects.

If that were all that Innerspace had going to it, its appeal would be largely academic, though I am not one to throw out movies on the grounds that their appeal is largely academic. Nonetheless, there are in fact other reasons why a person would be inclined to watch the movie: it is charming, for a start, with Quaid giving an outstanding, "aw shucks, I'm just a regular guy" performance that glides past everything that is terrible about Tuck (he is a womanizer, he has a drinking problem) and slows down for the guileless Americana inherent in every protagonist throughout the history of cinema who is also a test pilot. The cast around him is pretty damn solid, for that matter, with Robert Picardo's warped caricature of an Eastern European technology thief dominating every scene he's in, and legendary character actor Kevin McCarthy being a shitheel villainous businessman as nobody but a legendary character actor could have done it. Even Meg Ryan, struggling mightily with a thankless girl Friday role, manages to bring some spark to a character that, as written, exists almost solely to enable the plot to move forward.

More even than it is charming, with a clutch of fine (entirely unrealistic, but entertaining) characters, what makes Innerspace memorable is its attitude. The film plays entirely fair with its premise, and yet one never quite feels that Dante or writers Chip Proser and Jeffrey Boam take it entirely seriously, and thus is the accidental campiness of Fantastic Voyage almost entirely avoided. There's the sense, in every film Dante directed, that he would rather be making cartoons, and if Innerspace does not go as far in that direction as some (Gremlins 2: The New Batch is unquestionably the filmmaker's high water mark in that regard), there's an anarchic silliness throughout the whole thing that doesn't feel entirely real: the copious Bugs Bunny references and the Chuck Jones cameo certainly demonstrate that this is where the filmmakers' minds were going, but that would mean nothing if the film didn't carry out that promise in scenes like the extravagantly absurd climax, in which Jack and Lydia fight off half-sized versions of the villains, or the unexplained, gleefully ridiculous detail that Igoe has mechanical hands that can be removed and replaced. Somehow, this focus on all the strange cartooniness around the fringes leaves the central concept of a man and a capsule being shrunk down and injected into another man's veins seeming almost reasonable and sedate in comparison.

The net result of all this is that Innerspace has very little in the way of stakes: it's a lark and little else. But a terrifically high-spirited lark, and a lark with absolutely beautiful effects, and a lark that does the Amblin brand name proud, back in what was perhaps the best period in the production company's history. It's a frivolous movie for kids that not a single adult would ever have to be ashamed to watch: there's a breezy quality to it that transcends any target audience, seeking instead just to provide the best time possible to the most people. At this low-key goal, the film succeeds splendidly.

4 comments:

Vianney said...

You have no idea how happy i am for this review!
I wouldn't say it's in my top 10 of 'best' movies ever, but definitely in my top 10 of movies I've seen and enjoyed the most over the years (btw have you done Groundhog Day yet? and i dare not ask if you know Le Grand Blond or La Chèvre - available on instant streaming!)

My 12ish year old self absolutely loved this movie, back when I didn't know what the silicon valley even was, and had fallen asleep in front of Fantastic Voyage.
My 22ish year old self absolutely cracked up watching it in english, taking place all over my new neighbourhood, and featuring a younger, less grating Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan pair.
My 32 year old self... well, hasn't seen it yet, but i damn well should!

javi75 said...

I'm going to nitpick about the vfx. I remember when the villains are turned to midgets and they're in the backseat of a car, trying to "attack" the driver and co-driver. I believe the backseat is blue-screen, with the small-sized bodies of the villains, and then you have real hands coming from behing the seat and bothering the driver. It looks like the arms are six feet long, or something. That looks seriously wrong... not as wrong as Meg Ryan's hairdo and costumes though... hehe.

Tim said...

Vianney- Don't know that I have anything at all new to say about Groundhog Day, but it is a personal favorite. I'll admit to not having heard of the other two.

Javi- that's exactly what I thought, in re: blue screen. Turns out, it was actually deep focus and a forced-perspective car set that was 20 ft deep. The same technique used in Lord of the Rings, in fact, just less sophisticated. The moment I learned that fact, the moment the disconnected hands went from "distracting" to "inspired in its craziness" for me.

javi75 said...

I suddenly realized, it's kind of funny that the two Dante movies that maybe would have been a better fit for "Super 8" were not produced by Spielberg: "Explorers" (because it deals with kids instead of the adults of "Innerspace") and "Matinee" (because of the nostalgia of the director's childhood angle).