by Richard Fleischer
A Feminist Analysis
Is Fantastic Voyage a Poe?
(Nathan) Poe’s Law states, “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to create a parody of (religious) Fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”
Upon seeing Fantastic Voyage, for some time I struggled to understand whether it was a parody of sexism, or perhaps the most sexist film I have ever seen.
The reader has already surmised that Fantastic Voyage fails the Bechdel Test (on two of its three points.) Besides Raquel Welch, there are two women in the film—both nurses. The only woman other than Welch who has a line (and I mean one line) makes a massive blunder and endangers the lives aboard the Proteus, a sort of submarine shrunk to a microscopic scale that it may enter a human’s blood stream to perform laser surgery.
Of the Proteus crew’s five members, the lone woman, Raquel Welch, was the last to speak a first line. Before she said one word, and while she was in the room with her crew mates, the general in charge of mission control vehemently disagreed with her inclusion, “This mission is no place for a woman.” Later, the hero of the five, the most earnest of the film’s men, condescended, introducing himself by asking her if she had any tricks in the kitchen. Later, twice in the film a man springs to her rescue, once leading her by the clichéd, condescending hand.
Welch was the only character we saw in a full shot who removes her coveralls. It revealed a flattering wet suit, duplicates of which the men later wear. Yet hers was the only that was ever zipped down in front to cleavage levels. To be sure, Raquel Welch is as good looking a woman as has ever made a movie, but her character was nearly no more than eye candy. The writers provided her character with no personality, no story, and no color. She was there to be pretty and, rather sinisterly, to be another suspect in our search for the ship’s saboteur.
One could argue that the film’s treatment of Welch’s character wasn’t 100% sexist—a strange hill to die on. After all, she was included in the crew, she did serve as an image of a professional surgical/research assistant, and she was never part of a romantic storyline. Edmond O’Brien’s character, Welch’s sexist belligerent, was unsympathetic. But all of these curiously conceived contortions collapse upon noticing that even the handsome leading good guy, Stephen Boyd, was condescending and sexist toward her. Not to mention that her character was of course the assistant and never the lead.
Despite the film’s inclusion of three women, race diversity was absent. This movie has white people only. Granted, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission control in 1969 was entirely white (and entirely male), but the beauty of film, and the power of science fiction in particular, is the ability to create new realities that challenge current thinking. Unfortunately, the imagining stopped after the writers thought to shrink things—small minds, indeed.
To cap the film’s dominant-group arrogance, with a plot dependent on the science (fiction) of miniaturization, Fantastic Voyage found plenty of space to espouse ignorant, anti-science views. The surgeon argued with the hard science guy about evolution. The surgeon made two comments that often co-occur: 1) He misrepresented evolution as a process driven by “chance” (though mutations and common descent contain elements of chance, the primary mechanism of evolution, natural selection, is not a chance proposition) and 2) He thinks that evolution and natural selection are not real. For a “leading surgeon” in his field, this surgeon is embarrassingly and frighteningly ignorant and perhaps stupid. Regarding the rest of the film’s science accuracy, I am sure that scientists have much to critique, but I shall leave that to them.
I will however lament that, once again, the scientist—the one who understand evolution and natural selection—is the bad guy. He is the saboteur. How many times must science and its practitioners be seen as the villain?
The predecessor to InnerSpace (1987), Fantastic Voyage was primarily an offensive, dated product. Its special effects were a bit nice to see for historical purposes, and its basic premise was interesting enough to ponder, but one should not be able to get through this film without a shocking maltreatment of women and science. If you want to see special effects from 1960s science fiction films while pondering meaning, go straight to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If on the other hand you want to see overt sci-fi sexism, Fantastic Voyage is the film for you.