VHS Revival Revisits Joe Dante’s long forgotten sci-fi romp.
Innerspace is a buddy movie with a difference.
In an era of franchise reboots, prequels and sequels, watching this movie made me pine for a period when filmmakers were still free to be creative, when producers were less inclined to play it safe by exhausting the successes of others. The movie is directed by Joe Dante and presented by none other than Stephen Spielberg. The two had previously collaborated to promote another unique picture in Gremlins, and like that movie you could very much imagine Spielberg himself behind the camera. Fun and innovative and underlined by the kind of haphazard romance found in his lighter efforts, this is very much a Spielberg adventure, and perhaps deserves more recognition than it actually receives.
Lt. Tuck Pendleton – I don’t get it. I get a little drunk, I make an ass out of myself… What’s the big deal?
Of course, the movie will never win any awards for emotional depth, and our two protagonists are little more than caricatures. The archetypal hero of the picture is Tuck Pendleton, an army lieutenant with a little of the Han Solo about him. Pendleton has suffered an injury that keeps him away from the pilot seat and has turned to the bottle as a consequence. Rude, arrogant, and drunk at the most inopportune of moments, Tuck is looked down upon by his straight-edged colleagues, and his reckless behaviour has given the love of his life reason to leave for good.
The second of our buddy combo is a weedy little dweeb named Jack Putter. Jack works at a supermarket where his clumsy advances towards resident slut Wendy go largely unnoticed. His main problem is his hypochondria, a condition so severe he practically lives in his doctor’s surgery, and is regularly plagued by nightmares in which elderly women pull guns on him for overcharging them at the till. The boy is a go nowhere loser.
What makes the movie so entertaining is the situation these two polar opposites are plunged into, and the dead-on performances of both actors. Jack is played by the wonderfully manic Martin Short, a former Saturday Night Live comedian who had somewhat of a hit and miss movie career, which may well have contributed to the film’s eventual anonymity, but there are some parts, including this one, that his sublimely neurotic act is just perfect for.
Jack Putter – H-how do you treat that?
Well the medieval remedy was to flay the skin off your body with brands of fire. I have no idea what the current technique is. – Dr. Greenbush
After being ditched by the exasperated Lydia (Meg Ryan), a jobless Tuck agrees to take part in the kind of radical experiment that nobody else in their right mind would ever agree to. The plan for those scientists who have acquired his wanton services is to miniaturise their subject to the size of a molecule and inject him into a rabbit, using a hi-tech spaceship that will navigate the creature’s body and relay all kinds of groundbreaking information. Naturally, the process of miniaturisation promises all kinds of power, and it is only inevitable that their experiment would become the target of criminals looking to make a quick buck, but at some point during the ensuing melee Tuck is injected into Jack’s body, and from thereon in the screenplay basically writes itself.
Like all hypochondriacs worth their salt, Jack knows every last part of his body, both inside and out, and every little twitch or irritation computes to a life-threatening illness. So when Tuck burns minute layers of stomach tissue with his ship’s laser and attaches miniature claws to his optical nerve in order to see the outside world, our pathetic little nerd explodes in a fit of frenzy, and when the invasive intruder is finally able to communicate with his unwilling vessel, Jack’s doctor has to convince him that demons communicate through the living, and not with.
Even now, exactly thirty years on, the special effects are quite ingenious. So much so that it’s impossible to figure out just how they did it. During the movie Tuck’s ship journey’s to pretty much every organ you can imagine, while treacherous flurries of red blood cells and tidal waves of stomach acid prove quite the novelty as we find ourselves exploring the icky and mercifully unseen parts of our living organisms.
Innerspace also benefits from a wonderfully over-the-top supporting cast. We have perennial 80s bad guy Vernon Welles as a relentless killer with guns for fingers, a scandalous pair of power-crazed antagonists who wind up seeing out their malignant crusade as a couple of shrunken midgets, and perhaps best of all, a wildly exaggerated Robert Picardo as the machismo-oozing arms dealer known simply as The Cowboy, whose famous transformation scene features a quite extraordinary tour de force in physical comedy.
Hemmed in by their unrelenting pursuers, our two opposites finally accept the fact that they are stuck with each other, each becoming dependent on the other’s strengths to get them through their unfortunate pickle. Having been spotted in the mall by a robotic henchman, the cowardly Jack is soon the subject of a manhunt as the bad guys attempt to retrieve the microchip floating inside of him, while his miniature guide only has so long before his oxygen runs out. The fact that Jack could end up with a microscopic skeleton floating inside of him is all the motivation he needs to follow orders, and thanks to Tuck’s instructions he is able to grow in courage and self-belief.
Lt. Tuck Pendleton – It was the night we first met. You were doing that article about me… we had dinner and talked until 3:00 a.m. I got drunk and threw up, and fell down a manhole walking you home.
Tuck has all of the courage and guile in the world, and normally this kind of scenario would not be too much of a problem, but when your flesh carriage would rather break down and wet himself than fight for his own freedom, events tend to get just a little tricky, which is why Tuck suggests acquiring the help of strong-willed reporter Lydia, who for the longest time has no idea that her ex is stuck inside Jack’s body. It is through Lydia that Tuck is truly able to grow. Her friendship helps him to understand women and how to approach them, while sly glimpses of her thigh are enough to make the watching Tuck jealous, a fact that highlights his own true feelings.
Innerspace will never be considered a true classic, but that was never the intention. Inevitably, there are more plot holes than a gopher-infested golf course, and although the movie is sci-fi driven, the few scientific soundbites are utterly peripheral. This is a movie that is played entirely for laughs, and in spite of its predictability and trite sentimentality it is funny, sometimes sidesplitting. Jack’s pain is enough to make the movie work by itself, and Quaid is the perfect macho foil, but the film is more than just a one-trick pony; it is fun and thrilling and really quite clever, with frenetic action sequences that Spielberg himself would be proud of. There is one scene when Jack is communicating with chuck while relieving himself in a public urinal, and a watching man believes he is in fact watching a madman talking to his own private parts. ‘Don’t worry,’ Jack assures his miniature buddy while peering conspicuously down. ‘You won’t be small forever.’
It’s a shame that the movie is considered as much, because in my opinion it is one of the most creative of its kind.