Film Retrospect: Joe Dante's Innerspace
by Barry Wurst
June 21, 2007
Die-hard film buffs know the name Joe Dante well. This is a man who loves movies, comes from the legandary Roger Corman school of B-movie know-how (the same as James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson, among others), gleefully ads sly in-jokes in every one of his movies and always has a part for B-movie Grandmaster Thespian Dick Miller in everything he directs. This is a filmmaker whose joy in front of the camera matches the fun he creates in front of the lens and the fact that he remains underrated and underappreciated by Hollywood is a mystery and a shame.
Dante began with a slew of fiendishly clever B-movies (Hollywood Boulevard and Pirahna) that Corman produced, then directed the popular The Howling (one of the definitive werewolf movies) and hit the big time when Steven Spielberg allowed him to direct an installment of Twilight Zone: The Movie and Gremlins. The former project gained him acclaim that the film as a whole never recieved, while the latter film, one of the biggest hits of 1984, made Dante a hot director on the rise. Unfortunately, while his films continue to be consistantly good or better, his hot streak ended with Gremlins. The unfinished, poorly distributed (though quite dazzling) Explorers tanked in theaters, while Innerspace, a beloved cult sci-fi gonzo comedy, underperformed during its high profile summer of '87 run.
Starring Dennis Quaid (in a performance that impresses, particularly when you consider he spends most of the movie sitting down in a chair) and Martin Short (in his breakthrough role), the film was produced by Spielberg and is a big budget, state-of-the-art summer movie (the visual effects ended up Oscar winners). The plot, a mix of Fantastic Voyage and, well… everything else imaginable, is a random juxtaposition of pop culture, sci-fi / romantic / thriller conventions, and every goofy idea that ran past the screenwriters' minds.
The best example of the film's anything-goes approach is during a dinner scene between Short and Meg Ryan (quite appealing as the inevitable love interest): one of the film's bad guys shows up to kidnap Short, and Ryan, rather than act like a damsel in distress would in most movies, takes out a laser gun and they have a standoff! There's also a character called The Cowboy (embodied by the wonderful Robert Picardo), a dance sequence, a villain who can shoot bullets with his finger, and an utterly nutty sequence involving facial reconstruction like you've never seen. With all of these oddities stacking up, you'd think the film would be an over-indulgent, impenetrable mess, and amazingly, the film never is. Instead, the breakneck pace, Mad Magazine-style humor, energetic performances, full-throttle action sequences and stunning special effects make for a giddily exciting ride. A film this breathlessly imaginative is rare even today and the chase scenes are as breathless and thrilling as any in Lethal Weapon (released the same year).
The film has something for everyone: like Kevin McCarthy as the wonderfully named "Victor Scrimshaw", the hilarious scenes where Short thinks he's demonically possesed, a sweet love story, and the immortal line, "You just digested the bad guy!". Yet, this is not formalic, pre-sliced summer movie fare. This labor of love is (and this is the biggest compliment I can give it) a rare film where you have no idea where it's going, and are delightfully thrown off guard by the weird, audacious twists the film takes. Dante has made great films since (the wonderful Matinee, the cult hit The 'Burbs and Gremlins 2: The New Batch - which matches Innerspace in its surreal, crazy wit), but a number of flops has taken his clout and visibility from him. A huge come-back is just one great movie away from him. For now, Innerspace reminds you how great his films are and how wonderful summer movies can be. If you've already seen it, see it again – it's better than you remembered. If you've never seen it, don't read anything further on it, just see it. You're in for quite a ride.