Sunday, February 12, 2017

Joe Dante, part VII: Adequate voyage


INNERSPACE

The less you expect out of this 80s-style extrapolation of a classic sci-fi trope, the more you're likely to enjoy it.

1987
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser
With Dennis Quaid (Lt. Tuck Pendleton), Martin Short (Jack Putter), Meg Ryan (Lydia Maxwell), Henry Gibson (Mr. Wormwood), Wendy Shaal (Wendy), John Hora (Ozzie Wexler), Vernon Wells (Mr. Igoe), Fiona Lewis (Dr. Margaret Canker), Kevin McCarthy (Victor Scrimshaw), and Robert Picardo (The Cowboy)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Here we are again, picking back up with Joe Dante, four months after our last installment—though, if I may excuse myself, it's his fault.  Why?  Because I knew that writing about Innerspace was going to be an exercise in tedious nitpicking.  Therefore, I put it off until it wouldn't have been fair to review it without watching it again, which I simply didn't want to do.

Not the most auspicious way to begin.  And yet one should always keep one's promises, and I promised this.  Besides, maybe I was just in a bad mood that first time around.  Not unlikely—I'm pretty much always in a bad mood these days.  But I owed it to Dante, to you, and to myself to give it another spin, and, finally, I mustered up the will to do what was right.

And I guess it turns out I was in an unforgiving state of mind that night in October, because while everything—and I mean everything—that identified itself as mediocre and grating about Innerspace on my first pass is still right there, just waiting for somebody to aggressively shrug their shoulders at it so they can move on to something more interesting, this time all the things that were actually righteous managed to shine through.  God knows, this is still a list of tedious nitpicks, and I apologize upfront; but I feel a little better about it now.

Taking on a tale as old as 1966, Innerspace is the story of a test pilot, Tuck Pendleton, and the fateful mission he undertakes in the aftermath of an inebriated meltdown at a defense industry gala that concludes with the loss of his commission, his reputation, and his girlfriend, journalist Lydia Maxwell, all in the space of about eight hours.  The scientists in charge of his new project even say, in exactly so many words, that Tuck's only there because he's the only one willing to take the job.  Even so, that job is still right on the bleeding edge, where a man of Tuck's temperament surely belongs: they're going to take a submersible, with Tuck inside it, and shrink it, then shoot it into a test rabbit, basically just to see if they can.

This is what happens when you sign things when you're drunk.

Of course, missions like this never go according to plan—and, mere moments after Tuck is miniaturized, a squad of industrial spies, led by one Dr. Margaret Canker, smash their way into the lab.  When the lead scientist flees with the syringe containing Tuck and his sub, the last thing the good doctor manages to do before one of Canker's agents guns him down is to inject it directly into the ass of the nearest bystander, a lowly clerk and hypochondriac named Jack.

From there, our story can pretty much write itself, and, lo, it kind of does: Tuck makes contact with Jack by bio-hacking his eyes and ears, and once the poor fellow has been convinced that he's not going batshit-crazy, the pair return to the lab only to discover 1)that the spies stole one of the two microchips they need to return Tuck to his proper size, and 2)that the military-industrial complex is not nearly as urgently concerned with recovering that microchip as Tuck is, since while Tuck will run out of air in less than a day, the national interest remains safe, because without the second microchip, the first one's useless.

Thus are Tuck and Jack left to twist in the wind, until they ("they" meaning Jack, with Tuck as his microscopic Cyrano) can convince Lydia to help them.  And so the three infiltrate their way into that gang of spies and saboteurs.  That's when things get dangerous... and very, very silly.

Obviously, the first thing you'll notice about Innerspace is that it's a deep and deliberate riff on the premise of Fantastic Voyage, although hardly any two movies with the same basic foundations have ever been more distinct.  Voyage isn't even necessarily a classic itself, but you could never say it doesn't fully exploit its premise, serving up just about every stunning vista its 1960s-era effects budget could provide.

The upside of this is that Innerspace, arriving twenty-one years down the road, has absolutely got the goods.  Produced by Amblin (i.e. Steven Spielberg, this being he and Dante's third collaboration) it's one well-heeled sci-fi adventure we're looking at here, and every moment it spends inside a human body is rendered (if not plotted) with astonishing verisimilitude, courtesy of Bill George's Oscar-winning special effects team.  Innerspace is chock-full of practical effects wizardry, doing precisely what practical effects wizardry has always been best at—namely, representing the grotesque wonderland of the organic realm, from the first golden vision of Jack's butt's adipose tissue to the scary rush of blood cells in plasma to that unforgettable, awe-inspiring moment when Tuck comes face to face, literally, with his legacy.  Innerspace is a movie that remembers that the human interior is a weird and uncanny place, an aqueous realm replete with dangers and mysteries—and a pitch-black one, too, unless you have a submersible that can shine a light on it.  Innerspace, to be brief, justifies that Academy Award.  It looks more convincing than Voyage ever could; hell, it looks more convincing than the same script would today.  Innerspace is a triumph of a lost art.


And that's why you wish there were, say, ten times more of those effects; it's also why you wish Innerspace had a screenplay that cared about them for more than one brief scene at a time.  The tripped-out fantasia of Voyage is hardly anywhere to be found; it might surpass its predecessor in quality, but it certainly doesn't try to surpass it in scope.  Instead, Innerspace is mostly content to be a high-pitched thriller.  Indeed, it's most content of all to be a comedy—and an avowedly dumb one, at that.

That's somewhat apparent from the opening, which introduces us to Tuck as a preening, drunken moron, and ultimately leaves him standing buck-naked in the street (whilst Dick Miller sadly shakes his head)—yet once we actually get to Tuck's lab, Innerspace manages to take its scenario impressively seriously, with a dynamite miniaturization sequence that tilts everything in favor of showing, rather than telling, in a gambit that's simply gratifyingly respectful of its audience.  (Miraculously, Dante actually expects us to know what movie we're watching.)  Throw in what seems like a well-trained squad of mercs, some judicious cross-cutting with Jack, and a chase across busy Palo Alto streets, and it really does earn its thriller bona fides.  (And it's not even the movie's best chase.)  It's not that you necessarily wanted a sci-fi thriller in place of your broad sci-fi spectacle, but Innerspace certainly ain't a bad one to start.  Even when we arrive at one of Innerspace's several straight-up cartoon characters—Mr. Igoe, a man with interchangeable bionic tools instead of a right hand—it still feels more-or-less plausible.  It is a movie where a man just got shrunk.

But then Jack—who is, of course, Martin Short—is dragooned into the action, and after this, there's no pretending that the silliness isn't the strongest-proof booze in Innerspace's mix.  Soon, the script falls to pieces, vastly more concerned with indulging its stars' goofball charisma and its director's Chuck Jones-ish predelictions than it is with making even the least kind of sober sense—and while there's nothing really wrong with it, structurally, the little problems add up like mad, leaving an exceptionally slapdash thriller, stitched together with jokey plot devices that only work about half the time, and it's hardly ever the light-hearted but even-keeled journey into mystery you actually asked for.

Instead, Innerspace is the kind of movie that's can make a throwaway gag about lame old Jack's inability to distinguish the difference between a valet and a carjacker, and then, in the very next scene, put Jack right back in the same fucking car.  (Hell, it's the kind of movie where the whole Goddamned plot hinges upon Tuck's oxygen supply and his inability to refresh himself from Jack's lungs because of vaguely-described "pressure changes," and then immediately turns around and lets him restock his bourbon supply from the stream of Kentucky's best cascading down Jack's throat.) Meanwhile, most of the character arcs it half-heartedly plays with wind up bordering on nothing at all: Tuck starts out an asshole—he's basically a barely-functioning alcoholic—and while the movie is keen as hell to reward him for his troubles, I'm at a loss to see precisely how he earned it.  (Innerspace is much, much more interested in Jack learning how to be a real man, after all, and, to its credit, it's a very effective zero-to-hero transformation, in part because of how he gets to end the movie, pointedly refusing to take a woman by his side just to prove that, now, he's awesome.  But then, it's only able to do this because it makes such a weird hash out of its soft-pedaled love-triangle with Lydia, something that never feels like it makes emotional or logical sense.  Or even physical sense: do remember that the points on this dashed-line triangle are Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, in 1987, and—no offense intended—Martin Short.)

Most aggravating, however, is that Innerspace clearly despises the idea of its audience thinking for even two seconds about the actual geography of the human body—and so Innerspace doesn't so much as bother pretending that Tuck ever has any rationale for winding up exactly where the script needs him to be.

That anything-goes attitude culminates in Innerspace's sacrifice of its remaining plausibility at the altar of a long comic setpiece—one that engulfs the whole back half of the second act, wherein Tuck, using advanced stupid technology, refashions Jack's face from the inside out, turning the man into a perfect duplicate of yet another of Innerspace's cartoons, the Cowboy.  The only fig-leaf of basic credibility still clinging to the movie at this point is the fact that Dante's favorite actor for overly-broad caricatures, Robert Picardo, is required to don a blond wig of straight, Martin Short-style hair.  Obviously, this also becomes part of the joke—which is, to Picardo's credit, funny—but neither Rob Bottin's faintly-terrifying changeover effect, nor that beautiful show-off camera move that slides from Picardo to Picardo and establishes Jack as the Cowboy's double, can completely justify the inanity of the whole bit.  After this, the goofy-ass battle with half-shrunken baddies is practically a return to normalcy.

At the very least, that scene's connection to the premise of the movie we're watching is more than one micron thick.

Innerspace, ultimately, is very much a Joe Dante Film, which is both its strength and its curse.  (As for Spielberg's influence, that's positively marginal.  Consider: there's a little cutaway shot that exists solely to establish that one of Igoe's cyborg snap-ons is actually a dildo that vibrates for Dr. Canker's pleasure.  Not especially Spielbergian, I'd say—though it is the most effective joke Innerspace ever throws against the wall.)

Basically, it's a vehicle for Dante's sense of humor to express itself, but wasn't actually built to do the job—it's not unlike Gremlins, which has the exact same kind of problems.  (And so you can easily see how Dante justified Innerspace's excesses to himself, considering Gremlins' box-office dominance.)  It's just that it's so frivolous, in nearly every last respect, that even I have a hard time with it; but, by the same token, it's not frivolous enough to just come out as a comedy and be done with it.  It straddles a line, and splits its pants.

And yet I'll admit that those Dantean excesses are, paradoxically, part of its charm.  Whatever else is wrong with Innerspace, it is easy as hell to watch, with a headlong momentum that doesn't exactly earn the movie's two-hours-on-the-dot runtime, but which hides that duration surprisingly well.  I've scarcely mentioned the performances, but they're all admirably committed ones, especially Short's—he's never been the most bearable personality in cinema, but he's a legitimately sympathetic everyman here, keeping his tics in check and delivering Jack at (something like) the correct volume.  He has shockingly great chemistry with Dennis Quaid, too, considering that they don't appear onscreen together until ten minutes before the credits roll.  And hell, let's say that Quaid is doing the heaviest lifting in the movie, by making Tuck's rummy Hal Jordan even halfway-likeable.

It's a fun movie, then, where even the stupid parts—and it's at least half stupid parts—are always palatable, and they're often actively entertaining (though they might give you indigestion later).  Meanwhile, the genuinely good parts seize right ahold of the imagination.  (My argument, I think, is that these parts make the movie better as a whole, but they also make the rest of it seem worse.)  Clearly, you do have to be in the mood for this brand of excess—Innerspace is not the kind of movie that will, as they say, cheer you up.  But if you're already feeling a little silly, then there's nothing wrong with getting sillier, and that's always been this director's real stock-in-trade.

Score:  7/10

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