Remember when you could see two movies for the price of one? When going to the movies meant all day or all night affairs? To inaugurate their new "Fox Double Feature" DVD collection, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment happened to select two of my childhood favorites: Richard Fleischer’s "Fantastic Voyage" and Irwin Allen’s "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." Launched with first class anamorphic transfers and spruced up Dolby Digital audio, these "Voyages" are pure joy to watch on DVD and fan memories of many a daydream.
Before he capsized an ocean liner and turned a tower into a blazing inferno, "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen charted the maiden voyage of the submarine Seaview in 1961’s "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." Brainchild of scientist/inventor Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), the futuristic nuclear sub is completing final tests under the Arctic ice when a freak accident ignites the Van Allen belt of radiation, slowly roasting the Earth. Armed with a blueprint to extinguish the belt and save humanity, Nelson and his intrepid crew race against time to reach Ground Zero while battling hostile submarines, saboteurs and gigantic sea monsters.
1966’s "Fantastic Voyage" also charts inner space, but on a different plane. Back when there was a Cold War, a scientist who mastered the power of miniaturization enters American soil under cover of night. An assassin’s bullet misses, but the ensuing car crash triggers an inoperable blood clot in his brain. The only way to save his life is to use his own process to shrink a medical team and their mini-submarine and perform the operation from the inside. The catch? They only have sixty minutes to complete their task and get out before they reconstitute, growing large enough to activate his natural defense mechanisms.
As a kid, films like these were manna to me and these two in particular represented the richest kind of imaginative nourishment. Full of straightforward reactive conflicts (ducking antibodies, grappling with a giant squid, etc.), both stories play out a fanciful obstacle course with global salvation or a healthy patient as the prize. Indeed, the focus on reactive rather than proactive plot progression mirrors the current video game mentality where the goal is simple survival.
Both films are extremely earnest in their presentations, with rare interjections of humor. "Sea" benefits from the irascible Peter Lorre, always making some nasty comment along the lines of "He irritates me" or "You’re always so sure of everything!" The relationship between Nelson and Captain Crane (stoically played by Robert Sterling) swings between naval protocol and father-son resentment, quickly yielding to the next big jeopardy. Still, there’s a boyish grandiosity to the shots of Seaview slicing through the depths or in the death grip of a giant octopus (especially the inside shot from the glass nose).
The grave atmosphere in "Fantastic Voyage" sometimes borders on caricature. Technicians gesticulate solemnly when guiding equipment around the shrunken sub. Tiny rotating radar antennas surrounding the patient’s head is just a hoot, but good-naturedly so. Fleischer wasn’t totally without some levity towards the material: when Stephen Boyd tells Edmond O’Brien that he doesn’t want to be shrunk, O’Brien flippantly responds: "It’s only for an hour." Moreover, let us not forget perhaps one of the seminal memories of baby boomer adolescence: the seaweed-looking antibodies glumming onto Raquel Welch. How many young boys wished to trade places with one of those tenacious strands or the men who remove them from her suit!
It would be far too easy and cynical to look back (from our digital age) and laugh at the simplicity of the special effects in these movies. We would not have the seamless visions of today were it not for the flights of fantasy from Monsieurs Fleischer and Allen.
Mastered from virtually blemish-free sources, the 2.35 anamorphic transfers are of the highest quality, perfectly preserving the widescreen compositions. Colors are vivid and stable, if a bit saturated (owing to the DeLuxe color used by Fox in the ’50s and ’60s). Fleshtones look smooth and solid black levels contribute to the depth and sharp detail delineation in the images. Minor pixelation occurred in some scenes in "Sea," but otherwise I could not detect any digital or compression artifacts. Just being able to see the Proteus gliding through the heart or the Seaview breaching the surface with pristine clarity was a genuine thrill for me.
In the sound department, "Fantastic Voyage" gets a stereo mix for the first time, while "Sea" offers Dolby Digital 4.0 discrete audio as well as a standard Dolby Surround track. The audio tracks sound quite good, given the age of the two films. "Fantastic Voyage " got the better end however: the new stereo mix imparts a more compelling experience than the mono track that is also included on the disc. The Dolby Digital 4.0 audio for "Sea" is a bit problematic. For example, if someone screen left is speaking, their voice comes from the left speaker and so on. If your home theater speakers straddle your TV, then it’s not a problem. If they are a few feet apart (like mine) then it is quickly becoming an annoyance. Switching to the Dolby Surround track alleviated the effect, yet still packing oomph for the action sequences. The soundtracks have adequate headroom during the loud passages (even the mono track on "Fantastic") and really impress with their fidelity. Both films also contain a French monophonic soundtrack.
Trailers are included for "Fantastic" and "Sea," as well as the four "Fly" films that compose other "Fox Double Feature" DVDs. The "Fly" trailers are from the 1958 original (can’t wait on that one!), its 1966 sequel "Return of the Fly" as well as the David Cronenberg 1986 remake with Jeff Goldblum and 1989’s "The Fly II" with Eric Stolz. The trailers are full screen and in reasonable shape.
The menus are fun and definitely keep in the spirit of the films. Not animated per se, but with "Sea" you have a tiny Seaview as your cursor and shots from each chapter framed within the Seaview’s windows. (Question: the sub exterior shows eight illuminated viewports, yet the interior observation nose only has four. Why?) "Fantastic Voyage" uses the honeycomb design from the CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces) to house the Scene Selection shots and has a little Proteus wandering at your command.
"Fantastic Voyage" and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" still captivate today, despite adulthood tempering their mesmerizing effect on me. So plunge into Fox’s terrific new double feature DVD and hearken back to a time when you could see two movies for one, heroes didn’t need "motivation" and good ol’ Yankee ingenuity could save the world.