There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace, but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “Steven Spielberg Presents” sci-fi/fantasy variant (this time a comedic riff on Fantastic Voyage), continually busts at the seams, distorting into something altogether stranger.
Dante’s films generally explode into unbridled comic asides at every opportunity, but it’s perhaps the sheer doggedness of Innerspace’s attempts to tug on the heartstrings that set it apart. Its metaphors are so undisguised (Short’s Jack Putter discovers the hero inside himself, Dennis Quaid’s Tuck Pendleton whizzing around within must open his heart – tellingly, if he gets sucked into Jack’s it will spell death for him). There’s nothing subtle about this, and Dante usually wouldn’t be able to avoid ripping the piss out of this the type of Hollywood earnestness.
Yet it works. The initial guide for the screenplay was that they were making a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie. Accordingly, Dante’s hero-in-making is a hypochondriac dork, trapped working in Safeway. The actual hero is a washed-up pilot whose girlfriend has left him. He is effectively emasculated, made physically tiny (with a microscopic penis) and cut off from the outside world (for ninety percent of the film). So Tuck, injected into Jack, must teach his unwitting host to be a real man while Jack must give him an insight into caring and vulnerability.
Jack: But if I were Tuck, I’d talk about you all the time.
There are peculiar digressions along the way, which don’t come from Dante but mess with the head of the “serious” plot. Jack is smitten with Lydia (Meg Ryan), Tuck’s ex, all part of his hero worship of a “real” man. At one point he asks Tuck to turn off his monitoring equipment so he can have a moment alone with her (they kiss). Jack’s fantasy-yearnings are easy to understand, but Tuck’s compliance? Maybe he’s so confident in his own red-bloodedness that he knows her snogging the dweeb is no threat. And Lydia’s willingness? Yes, she’s seeing the man she loves in Jack, but it’s all slightly icky. It turns out okay, of course, as the act only goes to confirm Tuck’s feelings for Lydia (washed by saliva into Lydia’s body, he witnesses their unborn child).
Jack: Jack Putter to the rescue!
Kael is partially correct in here review of the film; the romance doesn’t ring true for Jack, and goes to undermine his better qualities. It feels like an emotional beat that has been foisted on him, and Short’s at his least convincing playing to the depths of feeling (it’s the comedian’s affliction, as anyone witnessing Robin Williams go all mushy will attest). Jack doesn’t need to turn moon-eyed; if anything, it’s a move more likely to set the audience against him. Short’s most comfortable mode is wild exaggeration (his strong dramatic showing in Season Three of Damages not withstanding) and pinning him down like this doesn’t quite play.
Arguably, we leave Jack Putter with completely unrealistic expectations of his own abilities; he has moved from the fantasyland of non-existent illnesses to the fantasyland of pursuing sub-007 spy antics (and, in so doing, he swears off his dodgy date and dead-end job). I don’t know if this is Dante’s intention, although the absurdity of the situation cannot have escaped him (Jack facing down pint-sized versions of the villains might actually be something he can handle). Perhaps what matters is that Jack believes in himself, no matter how absurd this is (and we don’t need to worry about him because, despite the attempts at grounding, he’s a cartoon funny man). However unrealistic he is, we are asked to join in Jack’s superficially triumphant release from the ties that bind him (even if it’s to the strains of Rod Stewart’s, rather than Sam Cooke’s Twistin’ the Night Away).
The twisted joke is that Jack is delusional when we meet him and he is delusional when we leave him, in hot pursuit of the Cowboy. But Short is so likeable, even in his dopey and ill-conceived infatuation, that he never really loses our sympathy. When he bests the villains, they are unlikely comic triumphs. Dante’s not equipped with a script that allows for a rigorous deconstruction of the hero mythos, à la Big Trouble in Little China, but he does manage to pull his metaphors in directions that don’t completely pay off (it’s all very well to try and find that heroic self, but if he isn’t you at all?) It can’t really be a paean to self-empowerment if, come the climax, Jack still really wants to be Tuck (off he goes in Tuck’s car).
Tuck: Don’t be a wusspuss. Be a man! (Jack slams down his glass on the table and startles Lydia.)
One of the key ingredients in Innerspace’s is its marriage of unlikely opposites. On the face of it, you couldn’t have two more unlikely co-leads. Quaid comes from the school of cocky, self-assured ’80s leading men (see also Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell). In Quaid’s case, he never quite made it as a star attraction, but his charisma is undeniable. He’s not the sort you put in a broad, slapstick comedy. Short is exactly that type, though. Diminutive and with a body as malleable as Mr. Fantastic, your instincts are against taking him seriously. Yet the two have a fantastic chemistry, even though they physically spend only two scenes together (both actors were there for the other on set however, ensuring there was someone “live” to react against).
Tuck: You know what? We’re going to need a lot more help.
And perhaps that’s the key. Dante has two movies here, running in parallel. If he takes miniature Tuck seriously (and he does; Tuck, despite his wisecracks and roguishness, is very much the straight man in a tin can), he can have as much fun as he likes with his spy/action movie parody involving Jack. It doesn’t matter too much if the themes are not fully explored; this is first and foremost a comic confection, and it’s rightly the aspect that fuels the director. The love story is a straightforward reconciliation through repentance and there can never be any doubt as to how it will be resolved. It amounts to little that Jack still wants to be Tuck, and would no doubt still pursue Lydia in a heartbeat if he had a serious chance.
Even given the uncertain emotional territory it covers, Innerspace conforms to the template of many a spy spoof; our unlikely everyman (Jack Putter – Martin Short) is forced into a world of espionage through the conspiring of circumstance This is often through mistaken identity, but in this case, a tiny pilot (Tuck Pendleton – Dennis Quaid) is injected into his bottom. He must then win out against the odds through a combination of dumb luck and fortuitous ineptitude. This involves joining forces with an attractive woman (Lydia) who is way out of his league. He must also impersonate a bad guy (The Cowboy – Robert Picardo) in order to gain vital information.
The script, credited to Chip Prosser and Jeffrey Boam (the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade scribe, who rewrote Prosser) has some automatic leeway with its science fiction element because it goes the spoof route. It doesn’t beg for Fantastic Voyage’s verisimilitude, even if it must have a certain degree of internal logic to keep the audience on board. The miniaturisation process involves much spinning and blinding light; it’s a magician’s trick, basically. So the science is left hanging; are Tuck’s molecules and those of the ship now tinier? Presumably, so how do they interact in an unaffected environment (even within a human body)? The writers throw in a concern about not letting (normal-sized, as opposed to miniature) air into the pod as the pressure would kill Tuck. But then they allow him to gather regular sized rum in his hip flask. How does that work? It doesn’t and it’s only when Dante slows down enough, or is unable to distract you with funnies, that you start to ask those questions.
There’s also the rare moment where is his instincts desert him, both comically and dramatically; the half-sized Scrimshaw and Canker scenes are completely bizarre, I’ll give him that, but they’re too weird to be as funny as I’m sure they were on paper (particularly the cuts between models and the actors) and lack the sense of threat needed for a thrilling climax.
Tuck: The Tuck Pendleton machine: zero defects.
This is the film where Quaid and Ryan met (they reteamed the following year on the largely forgotten D.O.A. remake) and their opening scenes together are all you need to buy into the “meant to be” Tuck and Lydia relationship. Structurally, the writers are at times quite clumsy in their foreshadowing of elements. The mention of the facial reconfiguration device is a particularly glaring one (what’s Tuck going to use it for in a rabbit?) But in the case of their relationship they do a remarkably good, if not to say tidy, job. Sam Cooke’s Cupid, which appears to have an effect on Lydia not unlike Rohypnol, is later reused at a crucial moment to inform her that tiny Tuck is inside her. As she climbs into her taxi to leave him, she responds to his suggestion that he’s broken his toe with “Well, better your toe than your heart”. Later, in order to convince her that he really is inside Jack, he instructs Putter to tell her:
Tuck: But it was my heart that was broken and not my toe.
It’s a moment that manages to be both terribly corny and incredibly sweet, and it works thanks to the performances. Both actors know they need to play the relationship real, and resist the urge to overplay (which absolutely everyone else in the movie is doing); it may be easier to do that if you’re only acting against yourself, but then again you have to deal with the fact that you’re only acting against yourself (Bruce Willis would traverse similar isolated terrain to Quaid, but to far greater box office, in the following year’s Die Hard).
Quaid’s ’80s roles were most memorable when they played up his charisma. Blessed (or cursed) with a Jack Nicholson grin and Harrison Ford delivery (the latter certainly here), he first made an impression in Breaking Away in 1979. His cachet increased again with ensemble The Right Stuff in 1983, where he played astronaut Gordon Cooper. From there until the end of the decade he turned up in a number of would-be hits, none of which made him more than a would-be star. His name was known, but no one was especially interested in his movies (and then a slowly dawning full stop was reached with the failure of Great Balls of Fire!) It’s a shame. Quaid’s given strong performances in an array of films since, but few have drawn on his natural charm (Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp is a notable exception, but even there he was eclipsed by Val Kilmer’s version of that character in Tombstone). As such, Innerspace might be the best example of his brio given full vent.
Jack: She deserves better.
Ryan had been noticed the year before in Top Gun. Three years later she would achieve fully-fledged leading lady status with When Harry Met Sally and maintained that for another decade. Here she’s somewhere in between; it’s the girlfriend part, but a pro-active girlfriend part. Audiences may not have flocked to the film, but it further cemented her as destined for great things and announced her as a natural comedienne (something increasingly allowed to slip as her career chundered on). When Jack wistfully comments on her “cutest little overbite” and “adorable pouty expression” you can be sure Short improvised what everyone was thinking (ad-libs were the order of the day on set).
Ryan’s a delight in every scene, particularly playing opposite Picardo’s Cowboy, and even convinces you that Jack’s kiss rocked her world (or at least gave her a moment of reverie). She also looks great in a leather skirt. In recent years Ryan has unwisely started messing about with her face, so you could do worse than check her out here, on the cusp of stardom, and be reminded what all the fuss was about.
Dr. Greenbush: Uh, good news Jack! I think we can rule out demonic possession right off the bat.
This was also the time of Martin Short’s break into movies. He found fame with the Second City comedy troupe (in particular portraying super nerd Ed Grimley) before John Landis snapped him up for the fitfully hilarious Three Amigos, the year before Innerspace. Dante’s film is something of a rare leading man role for Short; he’s generally been best remembered for high impact cameos (Father of the Bride, for instance).
Dante recalls that the performer’s approach is one of developing a scene through as many takes as possible, such that the Short’s first would be very different to his tenth. Innerspace, as early in his career as it is, may still stand as the best example of his versatility. He’s given the headroom to mine the comedic potential from each scene, but he’s also required to make Jack a fully formed character (much rarer when he’s doing a supporting “bit”). I’ve discussed the more disturbed aspects of Jack’s transformation, but it’s his comic timing that leaves the strongest impression.
Dr. Greenbush: The most important thing for you right now is no excitement.
We’re first introduced to Jack at one of his regular visits to Dr Greenbush (William Schallert, who also played The Incredible Shrinking Man’s GP). Short ensures this quickly devolves in a clumsy klutz routine where everything goes wrong. His second visit is a master class in rapport with the scene’s co-players (two of Short’s Second City alumni). Jack, hearing voices (Tuck trying to communicate with him), starts to worry his fellow waiting room waiters.
Jack: Did you hear that?
Waiting Room Patient: Hear what?
Jack: You didn’t hear that then?
Waiting Room Patient: Noooo, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear anything. Are you feeling all right?
Jack: Would I BE in a DOCTOR’S OFFICE if I WAS feeling all right?
It comes as no surprise that Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin had worked with Short before, as the timing between the three is a delight. It culminates in one of the movie’s best-known lines, “Oh God, somebody help me. I’m POSSESSED!”
Rep: How about a little shipboard romance?
Jack: Well, as long as it isn’t too exciting.
There premise yields a rich vein of comic misunderstandings and miscommunications; at most points one character is oblivious to something crucial that another does know. This may take the form of a quick set-up (Jack, in a lift, hears Tuck talking to him and looks to his fellow passenger):
Tuck: Hello. Hello, can you hear me?
Jack: (Looks at man): Who me?
Or it may contrast between what one person can’t hear and another can. When Jack visits the lab, Tuck’s old colleague Pete (Harold Sylvester) is there (not his favourite person). Pete promises to get Tuck out of Jack. And of course, Jack must intermediate the conversation.
Tuck: You better, you two-faced son-of-a-bitch.
Jack: Tuck says, “Thank you”.
The biggest laugh in the movie (certainly on first viewing) must be the urinal scene. Jack goes for a leak, during which he talks to Tuck about the latter’s shrunken state. The one-sided conversation is listened to by an increasingly disturbed Kenneth Tobey.
Jack: What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.
Man: Play with it pal, but don’t talk to it.
Elsewhere, Dante builds the comedy into something more sustained. The scene at the Safeway checkout, where Kathleen Freeman’s goods tally to an unbelievable price ($128,000) has been set up by Jack’s first doctor’s call. He recounts a nightmare featuring the same woman and the same situation, ending with her drawing a gun on him. The same sequence plays out here (there is no pouring of cold water on the veracity of premonitions although perhaps this should be no surprise, following in the wake of Explorers’ lucid dreaming).
Woman: Say, that’s kind of pricey for shampoo isn’t it?
Mr Wormwood: What have you done Jack? What have you done?
Jack: It’s a dream.
Mr Wormwoood: What?
Jack: It’s a dream.
Wendy: God, Jack! Way to screw up!
Again, the timing of the actors and the editing of the sequence are nigh on perfect. The aghast expressions of Wendy (Wendy Schaal) and Mr Wormwood (Henry Gibson) to the haywire till (caused by Tuck’s activities) and then to Jack’s panic attack are just as amusing as Short’s antics (he cracks open a bottle of aspirin and pours them into his mouth, hyperventilating). Witness Gibson’s stunned “Oh my God. He’s completely spaced out”.
Woman: Hey, I’m not buying that aspirin now.
Man: At $800 dollars a bottle, who’d want to?
Every beat is perfection. Dante has the eye of cartoonist, and stuffs each frame with minutiae and asides, ensuring sequences are fresh each time you watch them. For example, Chuck Jones’ appearance above as the $800-dollar bottle man. There line itself is very funny, and perfectly deadpan, and then, for those in the know, there’s the realisation of who is saying it.
At other times, the comic value is just a case of Short showing off his physical dexterity. Getting angry at Tuck, he attempts to beat the pilot out of himself.
Jack: (hitting himself) Where are you, you little weasel?
The meat-truck chase, where Jack clings to the truck’s rear door before being stretched between it and Tuck’s sports car is both thrilling and hilarious (and impressive for the parts Short was clearly doing himself). Then there are his ad-libbed attempts to distract himself from Tuck by watching TV. Later, his drunken dancing to Twistin’ the Night Away is indulgent but impressively unhinged.
At other times still, it’s not what he does but what he says. His queasy response to the advance of a would-be assassin (“Hello, Mr Killer”), on realising that he doesn’t have Tuck super-strength to aid him (be this through pep-talks or the stroking of his adrenal gland), is priceless.
But one of the essential attractions of Dante’s films is the supporting cast, many of whom are regulars. Indeed, often the greatest pleasure is seeing how he was woven his idiosyncratically chosen players into his latest feature, and how they have been given freedom to explore. I’m not trying to do Short down, as he’s driving the film, but the guest turns are at least as funny. And, in one case, the actor steals the movie from under him when he spends a good ten minutes playing Jack Putter.
That actor is the great Robert Picardo, now best known as the holographic Doctor in the mostly tepid Star Trek: Voyager. He first worked with Dante playing psycho werewolf Eddie Quist in The Howling and has appeared in much of the director’s work since. He plays the Cowboy, a fence who deals in stolen technology (“Who do you think introduced Velcro to the Persian Gulf?”) The Cowboy is my favourite Picardo/Dante part; to the extent that, when he’s knocked out/Jack reverts back to Short, the film never quite recovers from the hole he leaves (not even knowing that we see him again during the last scene makes up for disappearance).
The Cowboy: Women love me. But you know that. But for serious, two things you want to know about me. One, I make love with my boots on. And two…
Unsurprisingly, Picardo improvised many of his lines. Only in a Joe Dante film could you expect an extended sequence where Robert Picardo pretend-lassoes Meg Ryan at a nightclub, then engages in his special brand of wooing. (One of the reasons the scene works so well is the music. In particular, Narada Michael Walden’s Is It really Love? exudes the kind of excessive ’80s synth pop that is still catchy; combined with Picardo’s insane moves it takes on a demented majesty.)
The Cowboy: Howdy, big Jack.
And Picardo is so winningly unselfconscious that he’s willing to stand in leopard skin briefs, cowboy boots and hat, prematurely popping a champagne bottle when Jack enters (“Big Jack! Don’t knock, just come”). The Cowboy’s an exuberant caricature of the self-regarding macho man, stubbing out cigars on his palm and unselfconsciously singing I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande) – “Yippee-ayo-hi-yay”.
Lydia: How did you get Jack’s hair?
But then something very Mission: Impossible happens; Picardo is allowed to assume the mantle of leading man for a significant chunk of the story (and how often does a movie pull that one; most lead actors’ egos wouldn’t countenance such a thing). That facial transformation software mentioned right at the start? That’s why it’s mentioned, folks.
Some of Picardo’s ad-libbing is lunatic (why doesn’t he know how he got Jack’s hair? He is Jack!) and it feeds into the movie’s best scene. (Dante certainly thinks so, and I agree with him.) Picardo, playing Jack playing the Cowboy, meets with Victor Eugene Scrimshaw (another Dante regular, Kevin McCarthy) to take possession of the chip stolen from Vectorscope at the beginning of the movie (it is required convert Tuck back to normal size). The scene is another lesson in comedy perfection as Lydia and Jack attempt to bluff their way through the proceedings.
Scrimshaw: Don’t you remember? Idi Amin’s barbecue?
Jack: Oh yes how could I forgot! The sauce!
Picardo’s distracted playing with his food (“Fine I take what you got”), clumsiness with the chip and attempt to explain his change of hair (“Outlaw Yosey Wales – what a flick!”) are sublime. And then they’re topped by the insane reversion to Martin Short. Rob Bottin’s prosthetics, combined with the stunned disgust of McCarthy and Fiona Lewis (as Dr Margaret Canker), show that special effects can be very, very funny (if you know how to use them).
But all the major supporting players deserve a mention. Invasion of the Body Snatchers veteran McCarthy had to screen test for Scrimshaw, at Spielberg’s behest (the producer thought a bigger name was appropriate). His gleeful villainy is just one of the movie’s many delights, as he blusters dismissive putdowns (aimed at Jack: “Get back in here you Safeway clerk!”, “Putter, don’t be a Putz!”; directed at an unfortunate henchman: “The man’s a high school graduate! The green button, you fool!”) and reduces the plot intrigues to banal capitalism.
Scrimshaw: Nuclear weapons, Jack. They mean nothing. Everybody’s got them, nobody has the balls to use them. Am I right? (Jack shrugs) Space, you say? Space is a flop. Didn’t you know that? (Jack shakes his head) An endless junkyard of orbiting debris. Ah, but – miniaturization, Jack. That’s the ticket. That’s the edge everyone is looking for. Who will have that edge, Jack? Which country will control miniaturization? (puffs cigar) Frankly, I don’t give a shit. I’m just in this for the money.
Scrimshaw may be the ultimate Dante villain, a Looney Tunes Bond baddie. He takes phone calls in the pink-hued corner of an otherwise empty floor of an office complex, and takes undiluted pleasure in thinking up the worst possible end for the hero.
Scrimshaw: Why chance that? Once he’s gotten control of the pod and takes the chip, let’s re-enlarge.
Dr Canker: While it’s still inside Mr. Putter?
Scrimshaw: Why not?
Dr Canker: Have you any idea what kind of mess that would make?
Then there’s his half-heard droning monologue as he shares the back of the meat truck with Jack. We are supposed to be concentrating on the pep talk Tuck is giving Putter, but can’t help but be distracted by Scrimshaw (here’s what I could hear):
Scrimshaw: You know Jack, sitting here, freezing as we are, I’m reminded of the year that I spent working in the great gold fields of Alaska… I was a young man then myself… those were remarkable nights, hunting for the moose, and the caribou… I learnt the ways of the Eskimo and the Aleuts. Not a pretty people, Jack…
Henry Gibson exudes weary resignation as Mr. Wormwood, pressurised Safeway manager and Jack’s boss (“You know it’s coupon day”). Gibson found recognition in a couple of Robert Altman films during the ‘70s (Nashville, The Long Goodbye). John Landis, who’d cast the actor in The Blues Brothers, suggested him to Dante. His largest Dante role is as Dr Werner Klopek in The ‘Burbs (again, the director mischievously casts the most unlikely villains). Here he’s most required to provide concerned responses to Jack’s behaviour, but Dante picks his casts so well that you want more than a few minutes of screen time with these characters; an equally engaging movie could be fashioned out of any one of their skewed lives (see below).
Mr. Wormwood: Jack, you’ve always been like a son to me. Well, a nephew anyway. And you’ve got a great future in front of you in Retail Food marketing. And I’d just hate to see you throw it all away by going psycho on us.
Wendy Schaal, as Jack’s co-employee Wendy (the role was written with her in mind) is another Dante regular (and equally memorable in The ‘Burbs as Bruce Dern’s wife). Her shallow, slightly slutty, perma-gum-chewing checkout girl is a constant joy. To the extent that, whatever Jack’s legitimate reasons for not going there (his continued obsession with Lydia not being one of them), I always rather hoped he’d end up with her.
Wendy: This is SO exciting. How long have you been leading this double life?
She takes superficiality to transcendent levels, and her coarseness and self-centredness in the face of Jack’s problems provide yet more scene stealing from the supporting cast. I’ve said that Quaid is the straight man to Short, but often Short becomes the straight man to his co-players by virtue of their reactions to his actions.
Jack: It was like someone had just shoved a white-hot sewing needle through the pupil of my eye.
Wendy: Oh – GOD!
And her unbowed rebound from Jack’s rejection in the final scene, as she catches Dr Greenbush’s eye contains enough potential for its own spin-off movie.
Dr Greenbush: Jack, you seem to be experiencing some sort of theistic hysteria.
Jack: Oh, how do you treat that?
Dr Greenbush: Well the medieval remedy was to flay the skin off your body with brands of fire. I ‘ve no idea what the current thinking is.
I mentioned Schallert’s Dr Greenbush earlier, and this is another case where you can almost hear Dante’s glee as he contrasts the actor’s soothing bedside manner with the content of what he is saying.
Tuck: We’re gonna drink this one to Ozzie. A good man who tried to save my ass by injecting me into yours.
Fiona Lewis’ nefarious nymphomaniac doctor wins the prize for best-named villain (only topped by Christopher Lee’s Dr Catheter in Gremlins 2). Lewis pretty much gave up acting to concentrate on her writing career (this is her last credit on IMDB until some recent voice work). She has a great scene early on, when her team raids Vectorscope. She encounters opposite John Hora’s Ozzie Wexler, head of the lab, and the exchange is pregnant with implied past history. Hora was Dante’s regular DP (Andrew Laszlo was used for this movie), and was suggested for the part by Spielberg. Dante was initially dubious, but it proved to be one of his producer’s better ideas; Hora brings a natural absent-minded professor quality to the part. He also contributes an amusing succession of improvs, as many of his lab asides were unscripted:
Ozzie: These things should have been on my desk a week ago. Do you have any other pages you haven’t handed in?
Ozzie’s death scene is typically irreverent; as he lies on the floor of the mall, fading in and out of consciousness, he is surrounded by the costumed animal faces gazing down at him.
Mad Max 2 veteran Vernon Wells appears as Mr Igoe, a limb-deficient heavy with multi-attachment arms (a gun in the finger, propane blow torch). Dick Miller makes his usual cameo, this time as the unsubtle cabbie who picks up Ryan (Lydia: I don’t live here. Taxi Driver: Oh, one nighter).
Dante films are a repeat viewing treat for the minor details, with bountiful asides and in-jokes. There’s the complainant at the supermarket who shoves a chicken under Wormwood’s nose (“Smell it. Well go on, smell it”). The messenger/hit man who returns the videotape that flew through Jack’s window minutes before (“This yours?”). Jack’s response to the “Eat me, drink me” computer password (“What is that? From The Exorcist?”) And Wormwood at the wedding, bemoaning the fate of some of Safeway’s wares (“It’s true Jack. The whole shipment, it had worms”).
Besides his cameo, Chuck Jones and Looney Tunes are ever-present. Bugs Bunny is the main player in Innerspace; the rabbit subject is named after him, and he appears in the form of various toys placed around Tuck’s apartment (“Now take it easy”). A Mel Blanc hiccup is heard when Jack is drunk and the spinning pod makes the sound of the Tasmanian Devil.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one of his richest, including a memorable love theme for Tuck and Lydia, the wonderfully complementary cowboy theme and the electronic jangle of Mr Igoe. There’s also the opening macro shot, pulling out from a glass of what is revealed to be ice, imbued with the glinting awe of a journey through the cosmos. Unlike many ’80s movies, where the song choices now affront the ears, the selected tracks fit seamlessly (even though none of them – the Sam Cooke songs aside – are classics or hits).
Produced in the pre-CGI age, not only do the visual effects stand the test of time but any future attempt to make a mini-movie is doomed to unflattering comparisons. It will undoubtedly fail to match up because the process will be entirely non-practical. Dennis Muren’s explanations of the process leave you baffled at just how dazzling the visuals are; everything he says they did to realise them sounds so much less impressive than what you see on screen.
Dante intended Innerspace to be a bounce back from the flop that was Explorers. It’s probably no coincidence that it remains his only movie with fully-fledged adult love story. You could quite see that, in a journeyman director’s hands, this would have ended up as a much more straightforward adventure comedy (for example, helmed by Joe Johnston or Ron Howard). Anything the director embraces ultimately morphs into something that mirrors his skewed view.
But, as he tells it, the problem was not that audiences rejected the film; they just weren’t aware of it. Preview screenings provided such a vote of confidence that Warner Bros felt they didn’t need to spend money on promoting it. Released on the Independence Day weekend in 1987, it only reached the Number Two spot, and fell out of the Top 10 three weeks later. With a final gross of $25.9m, almost every wide release that month grossed more money (Jaws IV and Superman IV proving notable exceptions). Better received were Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, Summer School and the movie that reached pole position on Innerspace’s first weekend, Adventures in Babysitting.
In some respects, it’s a surprise that Spielberg gave Dante as many chances as he did, as his anarchic leanings and subversive wit are as far from the man who made E.T. as you can imagine. Even when you hear of the ‘berg’s less-comprehending pronouncements or suggestions (while wearing his producer’s baseball cap) you have to conclude he meant well and that he genuinely liked at least parts of what Dante was doing. Why else would he have been invited back to the fold (after a six-year big screen absence) for the fledgling DreamWorks’ Small Soldiers?
I wasn’t aware of the disappointing business the film did at the time. I recall some lukewarm reviews, but it seemed like another sure thing blockbuster movie. It was the latest in a line that included Back to the Future and Gremlins; it had Steven Spielberg’s name attached! Like the even bigger flop Big Trouble in Little China, it quickly became a video favourite; a testament to longevity having little to do with the fleeting gratification of instant dollar profit. All Dante’s movies have an enduring shelf life, if only by virtue of no one else making anything like them. Innerspace is probably the most identifiably ’80s of his most successful decade (creatively and for sheer number of directing gigs, that is) but it hasn’t really dated. Neither has it garnered the wider respect it deserves. It seems to be the fate of Dante, as a film buff and lover of cult movies, to be feted as a cult movie director, one who brushed with mainstream status but found it never quite took. Innerspace is a testament to that; his attempt to chase a hit mutated into a movie as peculiar as any in his oeuvre.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.
At the top of the page is the poster I’m most used to (it was also the video cover), but here’s a selection of variable alternatives:
Ouch. Would you want to see this movie?
Not terrible or anything, but it doesn’t scream excitement, thrills, laughs a-plenty.
What’s Short doing in a shopping trolley? Why’s Meg cheerfully shooting people? Who knew this starred Ryan O’Neal?
Now, that’s more like it.