**½/**** Image A- Sound A- Commentary B+
starring Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Meg Ryan, Kevin McCarthy
screenplay by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser
directed by Joe Dante
by Bill Chambers Fifties monster movies and grindhouse sludge bookended Joe Dante's coming-of-age, and these twin species of B cinema--sisters in spirit if not in execution--often squish up against each other in his work as a director. The man who gave us the loving but danger-filled tribute to showman William Castle and Castle's acolytes Matinee (a better Cuban Missile crisis picture, he said ducking tomatoes, than Thirteen Days) preceded his tenure with neo-Castle Roger Corman (for whom he made Piranha) by covering every last exploitation picture of the early-Seventies for THE FILM BULLETIN.
The monthly "Perfectionist's Guide to Fantastic Video" VIDEO WATCHDOG has begun reprinting these reviews and will continue to do so until they run out of them; considering that in one month you can see that Dante endured The Hot Box (a "tropical women's prison" flick co-written by Jonathan Demme!), Naked Angels, and Night Call Nurses, it had to scar him. Thus while his Innerspace is in obvious debt to such innocuous Saturday afternoon fare as 1968's Fantastic Voyage and 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, it's kind of coarse--like The Incredible Shrinking Man might've been 15 years later, or like the rest of Dante's oeuvre, including Matinee, is. Look at it this way: in the Eighties and Nineties, Steven Spielberg produced a handful of Dante's pictures, starting with Gremlins; if Spielberg is the mogwai Gizmo, then Dante is Stripe.
In a teaming the likes of which we may never see again, Martin Short plays Jack Putter and Dennis Quaid his Jiminy Cricket. (The core casting notion was an homage to Martin and Lewis.) Described--whatever this means--as a "25-hour-a-day hypochondriac" by Warner copywriters, Jack is a Safeway manager plagued by insecurities. Naturally, when a group of thieves bust up a miniaturization lab (leaving shrunken test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) inside a hypodermic needle without a destination), it is passerby Jack who gets unwittingly injected, resulting in a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario as the new quirks of his body are anything but imagined and the folks around him just smile and nod. Upon hearing Tuck's voice from within for the first time, Jack runs to his GP (The Incredible Shrinking Man's own William Schallert), who promptly assesses, "Good news: we can rule out possession. Demons talk through you, not to you!"
You have to wonder why Tuck's vessel is equipped to anchor a mic line to the host body's middle ear (allowing him to chat with his charge), since he was initially to be placed inside a rabbit. Along those lines, why did Jack bring an empty flask, which he instructs Jack to fill? Was he to coax the bunny into ingesting some whiskey as well? Granted, such questions are drowned out by the wacky, if unusually subdued, presence of Short and occasionally transcendent pre-CGI special effects--an astounding Starchild moment in which Tuck encounters a moon-sized foetus, for example. Revisiting Innerspace, the Amblin experience came flooding back to me: You weren't yet jaded enough by the prefabricated "wonder" to identify the sleight-of-hand it was pulling on the plotholes.
Jack of course must find a method of flushing Tuck out of his system and re-enlarging him before Tuck runs out of oxygen and before the aforementioned villains (led by the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers' Kevin McCarthy, a one-of-a-kind curmudgeon) catch up to Jack and Tuck's on-again/off-again girlfriend (Meg Ryan), a reporter for whom Jack develops affection as her surrogate lover. Whew. Haven't even touched on the subplot involving a swarthy, hilarious French cowboy (Dante regular Robert Picardo), or Jack's own inamorata, a check-out girl the filmmakers so mishandle that she inadvertently becomes Innerspace's most complex character: her shifts in personality due to schizoid scripting result in actress Wendy Schaal--another member of Dante's stock company--creating a person in more emotional turmoil than even Jack and Tuck. Her final scene, alas, plays like the kind of misogynistic slap in the face Dante could often be counted on to rail against in his critical writing.
But the picture's haphazardness lends itself to being appreciated. Innerspace is on the move--it doesn't, to borrow from another 1987 blockbuster, have time to bleed. Dante shoots his load here, incorporating everything but the bathroom basin: the French cowboy, if I'm not mistaken, paved the way for a "Doctor Who" reference, with his big-oil Texas suit adopting a Peter Davison affectation when worn by the gawky Short, and there's an altogether transcendent passage in which Quaid blasts a cry for help in the form of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" inside his now-ex-wife Ryan's skull. I wish it were more cohesive and perhaps more conscientious, but at least Innerspace has moments, and lots of them.
Innerspace is available on DVD from Warner Home Video in a presentation that contains a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film along with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likely based off the six-track mix that accompanied 70mm prints. The image is splendid, on a par with the studio's glowing remaster of 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure; the age of Innerspace is mostly in evidence in composite shots (that optical particulate that accompanied Spielberg-era movie magic), as even the soundtrack is rich and full, though wanting in the lower octaves. The picture's curiously low-key theatrical trailer and an engaging group commentary by Dante, producer Michael Finnell, visual F/X designer Dennis Muren, McCarthy, and Picardo cap the disc. Not every participant is there from the start (and Short is dissed for not joining them), but each seems glad to be reunited with one another and discussing Innerspace, despite lobbing more than a little sarcasm the movie's way. Originally published: July 28, 2002.