Dissecting Joe Dante’s oft overlooked sci-fi romp
Innerspace is a buddy movie with a difference.
In an era of franchise reboots, prequels and sequels, watching this 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 as a cashier 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 customers pull guns on him for overcharging them.
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
What makes the movie so entertaining is the situation these two polar opposites are plunged into, and the dead-on performances of both actors. So reminiscent of a Spielberg hero is Dennis Quaid that he would have made a fine Indiana Jones. 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. This may have contributed to the film’s modern-day anonymity, but there are some roles, including this one, that go hand-in-glove with his sublimely neurotic act, while Quaid’s also-ran A-List status always seemed beneath his magnetic qualities.
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 consider, and within a few hours he is miniaturised to the size of a molecule and injected into a rabbit, piloting a hi-tech spaceship that will navigate the creature’s body and relay all kinds of groundbreaking information to government scientists. Naturally, the process of miniaturisation promises unprecedented 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.
Even now, exactly thirty years on, the special effects are quite ingenious. So convincing that it is 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 ourselves. The movie also benefits from a wonderfully over-the-top supporting cast. We have perennial ’80s bad guy Vernon Wells as a relentless, robotic killer, 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 of physical comedy.
Hemmed in by their unrelenting pursuers, our two opposites finally accept the fact that they are stuck with one another, and the two become close as they grow dependent on each others’ strengths. 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.
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.
Realising that he only has so much time before his oxygen runs out, 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 Jack is truly able to come out of his shell. Her friendship helps him to understand women and how to approach them, while at the same time opening a watching Tuck’s eyes, and in the end the fact that Jack could end up with a microscopic skeleton floating inside of him is all the motivation he needs.
Innerspace will never be considered a true classic, but that was never the intention. This is Indiana Jones on a much smaller scale, but it delivers thrills and spills in spades, and scenes such as that in which a tee-total Jack takes a slug of whisky in order to fill the miniature Tuck’s welcoming flask are inspired. 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.
There is one scene where Jack is communicating with Tuck while relieving himself in a public urinal, and a watching bystander believes he is witnessing 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 the period.