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Wednesday Rewatch: Is Joe Dante's Innerspace still funny?

Contributed by
Jun 6, 2018

Welcome to Wednesday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate it in a new context.

This week we rewatch Innerspace (1987).

When I found out June was going to be comedy month here at SYFY WIRE, my mind immediately went to one film that I just had to write about – surely, in my mind at least, the funniest sci-fi film ever: Innerspace. If you're not familiar, it finds wasted test pilot Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) volunteering for an experiment in which he and his prototype innerspace ship are supposed to be miniaturized and injected into into a rabbit. Alas, everything goes awry, and Tuck ends up tucked into the tuchus of hilarious hypochondriac Jack Putter (Martin Short). Cue the hijinks.

Of course, I remembered the film – from Gremlins director Joe Dante (with some exec producing help from Amblin Entertainment's Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall) – as being nothing short of sidesplitting, with amazing special effects, action, and adventure to spare. Granted, I hadn't seen the film in some 30 years or so, but the one line I've consistently quoted from it since has certainly stood the test of time. And it did win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. So it stood to reason that the rest of the film would hold up too, right?

Well, let's find out…

FIRST WATCH

Honestly, I remember very little specifically about my first time watching Innerspace, other than it was likely on HBO, since most of my time back in the '80s was spent watching HBO. And I remember watching the movie a lot.

Specifically, I remember the rabbit who was supposed to be injected with Quaid's infinitesimal spaceship and feeling very sorry for said bunny. I remember Martin Short making all sorts of funny faces and enjoying very much his "I'm possessed!" line. I remember Meg Ryan carving out an even bigger place in my adolescent heart, just one year after breaking it in Top Gun. I remember the little miniaturized bad guys in the suitcase. I remember the bad guy with the robotic hand that opens wine bottles, shoots bullets, and spews flames. I remember his sunglasses. I remember the technology trading Cowboy, his suit pants tucked into his flashy boots, his hairy chest, and his disturbing facial transformation back into Martin Short.

But most importantly, I remember this line: "When things are at their darkest, pal, it's a brave man that can kick back and party." I remember thinking how damn cool Quaid seemed to me when he said that. And how sage that advice seemed then – even though I had no idea what partying really meant at the time. Still, it's a line I cultivated into a philosophy. And it's worked pretty good for the past 31 years or so.

THE OFFICIAL REWATCH

Okay, since that's the line I remember best, let's start erasing my childhood dreams right there. What I didn't realize until a few nights ago, when I finally rewatched the movie, is that the line, as brilliant as it may be, occurs during what can no doubt be considered the least necessary scene in the movie.

The scene is obviously intended to capitalize on Short's exceptional physical comedy skills, but it just seems so bizarre, especially after setting up all the tension: Tuck going through with the dangerous and secretive miniaturization experiment, only to have Ozzie, the sometimes limping scientist in charge of the operation, saving the syringe and fleeing through a very '80s shopping mall, where in a last ditch effort he's able to inject Tuck into Jack's butt. And then, we go through the whole setup of the ticking clock of Tuck's air supply, and the difficulties Tuck and Jack initially have with communicating, and the fact that there's a bad guy with a robotic arm chasing after them.

So yeah, times pretty much seem to be at their darkest. And then there's this completely bizarre dance sequence, which just takes you right the heck out of the movie.

Anywho, childhood ruined, and 31 years of a tried and true philosophy with it.

Another issue I had while rewatching the film was that the effects just don't hold up at all. They may have been Oscar-worthy in the late '80s, but Tuck's ship now looks like a misshapen tin can floating against stock footage of arthroscopic surgery. The insides of the human body were a marvelous mystery to me back then, but now they just kind of make me nauseous, and wondering what kind of carcinogens I'm carrying around within.

One thing that does hold up though is the premise. Miniaturization is still a novel idea, and a well-established subgenre that spans from The Incredible Shrinking Man, to Fantastic Voyage (which Innerspace definitely pays homage to), to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (just two years after Dante's film), all the way up to Downsizing and the Ant-Man movies. There's plenty of fun and games to be had while exploring such a world, and no doubt Innerspace has fun with the premise.

But while there's fun to be had, it's may not enough to hang a whole movie on, especially one who's world-building relies on quite a few assumptions from the audience. Assumptions which I had no problem going with before studying film, but which I apparently can't let go of now.

Granted, they try to make up for all that with a few spectacular chase sequences, but those seem overly long, and at some point, it just feels a little too much like the Keystone Cops. The whole tech stealing part of the movie does raise the stakes, but perhaps the stakes might have seemed higher if we understood a bit more about the tech – where it comes from? What can be done with it? Why is it worth dying for? Why does it make Martin Short stronger? How the heck does it emit electromagnetic pulses that blow up TVs? How does Tuck manage to change Jack's face with just a quick glance at the ship's operating manual?

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(Credit: Amblin Ent./Warner Bros.)

NOTABLE MENTIONS

Lt. Tuck Pendelton is kind of an a**hole. Which kind of makes it hard to root too much for him. I mean, what kind of a jerk treats Meg Ryan so poorly? Even if we accept the fact that he's got to change in order to become the hero, the air of cockiness he breathes never quite goes away. I guess I valued swagger much more back then.

Martin Short is kind of annoying. Maybe it was just the Ed Grimley dance moves taking me out of the film during the kicking back and partying scene, but I don't think I've gotten over it.

Meg Ryan's never-take-no-for-an-answer journalist Lydia Maxwell is, for the most part, a strong female character, somewhat of a rarity for the times. Granted, she's got a fatal flaw of a soft spot for Tuck, and she should really have gotten a few answers from Jack right off the bat as to his involvement in everything, but she is a critical cog in solving the mystery that finally gets Tuck out of Jack safe and sound.

Why is everyone wearing ski goggles during the miniaturization experiment? Isn't there such a thing as science goggles? And why are they all in the same tiny room with the ship spinning wildly like that? "Molecular isolation" sounds and looks pretty darn dangerous. It doesn't seem like the safest lab setup. What, no helmet? And why would anyone bring a flask, particularly an empty flask, onto an innerspace ship?

Okay, the robotic arm is still pretty cool, even if we've got T-1000s to compare it to now. But the little red chips that made everything work really should have been cooler; they appear to be purchased at a True Value out of the bargain circuitry bin.

Vernon Wells is always awesome – whether it be the crazy mohawked guy in Road Warrior, or pretty much the same guy in Weird Science, or Bennett in Commando. And as Mr. Igoe, the man with the robotic hand in this film, he's just as awesome.

There are a million little idiosyncratic touches that make Dante's film all his own – the pink sheen on the white office and white dog and white suit glowing off big bad Victor Eugene Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy); the lingering question of what hand-attachment Mr. Igoe puts on after he opens the wine for Dr. Margaret Canker (Fiona Lewis), once she's let her hair down; the Cowboy's pink, white, and black cow-patterned suitcase that also serves as a ghetto plaster…

THE TAKEAWAY

Well, it turns out I was mostly wrong about Innerspace. Mostly. But not altogether. It's not that the film isn't still entertaining all these years later, as every Dante film I've seen has that going for it. But after rewatching it for the first time since adolescence, I guess my senses of humor and special effects have grown up a bit. As shocking as I may find that.

No, in the end, the film doesn't hold up to the one that was in my head. The setup seemed rushed. The characters stock. And the laughs don't come quite as frequently or easily as I remembered. Which basically means that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids now tops my list of funniest miniaturization movies. And though I've likely not seen that since 1989, I won't be rewatching it anytime soon, just to make sure it stays No. 1.


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