July 1, 2012

An Underrated Classic Turns 25

“Nuclear weapons, Jack. They mean nothing. Everybody’s got ’em, nobody has the balls to use ’em. Am I right? Space, you say. Space is a flop. Didn’t you know that? An endless junkyard of orbiting debris. Ahhh…..but….miniaturization, Jack. That’s the ticket. That’s the edge that everybody’s been looking for. Who will have that edge, Jack? What country will control miniaturization? Frankly, I don’t give a shit. I’m only in this for the money.”

I can’t say why exactly, but that has always been one of my favorite pieces of film dialogue. You’ll never find it alongside universally regarded Classic Movie Lines/Speeches like Humphrey Bogart’s final words to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca or Marlon Brando’s “The horror” passage from Apocalypse Now, but I hold it in comparable esteem. And I’m guessing that only about three potential readers of this post might recognize it. The line comes from Innerspace, one of my all-time favorite movies, which was released 25 years ago today – part of my seminal summer of 1987 that I wrote about in May as the time when I fell fatally in love with the movies. Lots of films are celebrated when they reach milestone anniversaries, but I figured that little attention would be lavished on Innerspace. Today, I’m here to speak for it.

Innerspace is a forgotten 80’s classic. There were so many great movies in the 80’s that some of them are bound to be neglected. But like many of the decade’s best movies, this one was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, putting it on a list that includes Poltergeist, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Gremlins. These are all movies that are discussed fondly and frequently in circles of movie geeks who came of age during that decade, yet despite being firmly in the same wheelhouse as these classics, Innerspace is seldom mentioned. It was even directed by Gremlins helmer Joe Dante, whose 80’s output also included The Howling, Explorers, The ‘Burbs and a great segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie. So where’s the love? A few months ago, a fellow WordPress blogger and mega movie enthusiast who runs a site called “Fogs’ Movie Reviews” put a question to his readers: What Are Your Favorite Films From the 1980’s? The topic elicited a wealth of responses. Some titles, like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Aliens, The Princess Bride, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to the Future, were mentioned frequently, while many others were championed only here or there. I was sad to see only one person cite Innerspace…though to be fair, some people – myself included – didn’t want to repeat titles that others had already named. Still, I’d hoped Innerspace might come up a few times.

I wrote in my summer of ’87 piece that Innerspace was the first movie my friends and I went to see without any parental accompaniment, which lends it special significance for me. Being old enough to go the movies ourselves was a key rite of passage. Innerspace is one of those movies that I will always associate with a certain place and time. I even remember seeing commercials on HBO heralding its impending pay cable premiere; to this day, certain shots will pop as I watch the movie because I remember them being in those commercials. But I promise, my enduring love for the movie is no mere byproduct of nostalgia. And the movie isn’t one of those that I loved as a kid only to discover as an adult that it doesn’t hold up. Innerspace totally holds up. I have such affection for this movie, which I don’t deny is expressly tied to being 10 years old when I first saw it. This particular blend of sci-fi and comedy was perfect for me at a time when I was really getting into movies, I loved special effects and my sense of humor was taking shape. Dante is a huge Looney Tunes fan, and the comedic influence of those classic cartoons is often reflected in his work. It certainly was here, and as a Looney Tunes lover myself, it surely helped explain my appreciation for the movie. (Legendary Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones has a cameo in the film, as he did in Gremlins.)  I was also getting familiar with Saturday Night Live‘s legacy at that time – watching classic sketches in rerun, and marveling that Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Billy Crystal and Martin Short all had that show in common…though of course for Short, the legacy really dates back to SCTV. (My family’s traditional Christmas Day movie in ’86 was Three Amigos, which also helped me understand the influence and importance of SNL.)

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, I should probably give you the lowdown. Set in and around San Francisco, it’s a sci-fi comedy starring Dennis Quaid as a military test pilot with the improbably macho name Tuck Pendleton, who agrees to participate in a top-secret experiment in which, manning a tightly confined flying capsule, he will be miniaturized and injected into a laboratory rabbit to run a series of experiments. Unfortunately, a case of poorly timed international espionage disrupts the procedure, and Pendleton winds up injected into a somewhat nerdy grocery clerk named Jack Putter (Martin Short), who also happens to be the world’s biggest hypochondriac. He’s a stressed out Nervous Nellie, and according to his doctor, the last thing he needs is excitement or danger. Wanna guess how that’s gonna work out? Once Pendleton establishes contact with his host, the duo have no choice but to work together and try to get the shrunken man out before his oxygen expires or other nefarious forces interfere. It’s essentially a buddy movie…in which one buddy is flying around inside the other buddy’s body. (The movie’s stellar visual effects were created by Industrial Light & Magic, and went on to win an Oscar the following year. In fact, the first Oscar prediction I ever made was that Innerspace would beat Predator for Best Visual Effects. Little did I know how deep that rabbit hole would go.) Meg Ryan, in one of her earliest film performances, also stars as Pendleton’s estranged girlfriend Lydia, a journalist who Tuck and Jack enlist for help. Without spoiling how it all turns out, I’ll say that as a kid, I always hoped there would be a sequel, as the final scene totally sets up the story to continue. But there was never any real intent to make a follow-up; it’s just meant to be a fun finale. I suppose it’s better that no sequel was made. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been as good. (Though maybe Dante could have pulled it off; he certainly did with Gremlins 2: The New Batch.)

The role of Pendleton was originally intended for an older actor, maybe in his forties. But the filmmakers met with Quaid, who was only 32 at the time (I can’t believe that!), and felt that he was a great fit for the part. Although he and Short wouldn’t share any substantial screentime together, the buddy dynamic still had to work just as well as it does in, say, Lethal Weapon, so the part of Jack Putter was cast with that in mind. They hadn’t really thought about someone as out-and-out comedic as Martin Short, but when they met with him, and then put him together with Quaid, the chemistry was clear. I don’t know what they had in mind for Putter initially, but Short seems like ideal casting when you consider that co-writer Jeffrey Boam (who also penned Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) envisioned the movie as a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy; what would happen if Dean was trapped inside Jerry’s body? It’s a pretty interesting relationship to create from a technical standpoint, because Tuck can see Jack’s point of view on his capsule monitor, and they can talk to each other. In order to preserve the spontaneity and improvisation that comes out of two actors working together in the moment, Quaid and Short were always on set during the filming of each other’s scenes, feeding lines to the other through a microphone. In addition, many of Short’s scenes had to be filmed twice: once with the camera on him, and once with him wearing a helmet-cam in order to capture his POV for Tuck’s monitor. Both actors are so great in the movie, and Quaid especially deserves credit for making his character so engaging when he’s stuck sitting in a tiny cockpit for nearly the full two-hour duration.

The rest of the cast is great too. Ryan was excellent, and clearly bound for stardom. Many of the smaller parts, meanwhile, were populated by actors frequently featured in Dante’s work. Wendy Schall plays a co-worker of Jack’s, and has a moment in her first scene that spun me into a fit of uncontrollable giddy laughter when I first noticed it (it took me a few viewings of the movie before I caught what she did). She only has a few scenes, and while they’re all intended to be funny, she actually manages to add an unexpected bit of depth to the character that makes her kind of sad. Another actor worth mentioning wasn’t really an actor at all. The scientist at the lab in charge of the experiment, Ozzie, is played by John Hora, who was the cinematographer for all of Dante’s previous films. When describing the slightly absent-minded professor quality they wanted for the character, Hora was named as an inspiration, so Spielberg suggested they cast the man himself. Again, it’s a small part, but he  plays it really well – funny, and like Schall, a little sad. Dante’s gallery of recurring actors are all so great I could spend time talking about each one – Robert Picardo as the bizarre stolen goods trafficker The Cowboy, Kevin McCarthy as refined villain Victor Scrimshaw – but I’ll resist the urge to mention them all. I suspect that at this point I’ve already alienated the few people who might have cared about this post to begin with. Just trust me when I say it’s a colorful gallery of characters.

I miss seeing movies by Joe Dante. He’s only directed two features since 2000, and one of the those – 2009’s The Hole – has yet to receive U.S. distribution. (Actually, news just broke a few days ago that it’s apparently heading to DVD on September 25th.) Point is, Dante was responsible for some damn fun movies back in the day. They were skillfully made and had a distinct sense of humor. I’m not sure if his limited output of late is a personal choice, or an inability to get his desired projects funded, but whatever is stopping him, I consider it a shame. He notes in the DVD commentary for Innerspace that after the box office failure of his previous film, Explorers, he wanted to do something with more mainstream appeal. The sweetness and romantic comedy aspects of Innerspace were supposed to satisfy that desire, but he jokes that the finished product still comes off as another wacky Joe Dante movie. Which is just fine by me.

So if you’re a child of the 80’s who is passing on the decade’s cultural legacy to your own children, or nieces and nephews, or cousins, or kids you’ve kidnapped, or whatever, don’t forget to include this gem amongst the more expected fare. It’s a guaranteed happy-fun time, and if even a couple of people who’ve never seen it check it out as a result of reading this, I’ll be pleased.

Happy 25th, Innerspace.


  1. Yes! Great film. Quaid could’ve been Indiana Jones.

    Comment by Jim — July 1, 2012 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  2. One of my favorites. I agree about the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis angle. Dennis Quaid and Martin Short have an amazing chemistry. It is one of those movies that I watch when I am in a bad mood, and it brightens my day. I never fail to laugh when Martin Short goes to the checkout counter. A classic.

    Comment by Vicki — July 2, 2012 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

    • Nice! It’s definitely one of those movies that could cheer you up if you’re feeling down.

      Comment by DB — July 2, 2012 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  3. In my scramble to get the post done and published on July 1, while also spending time with visiting parents and siblings, I neglected to mention two things. 1) Although he hasn’t been too active on the directing front of late, it’s not like Joe Dante is in hiding. He’s one of the founders of a website called Trailers From Hell (http://trailersfromhell.com/index.php), which gathers a bunch of cult filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, John Landis, John Sayles and Dante himself to comment on trailers from old and/or obscure movies. I haven’t had a chance to really check it out, but from what I gather it’s a lot more fun that you might think from my lame explanation. 2) Film score enthusiasts should know that Innerspace boasts great music by Jerry Goldsmith, samples of which can be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azOH7Ip41p8

    Comment by DB — July 3, 2012 @ 12:13 am | Reply

  4. Bravo Burnce! Also one of my absolute favorites. My nostalgic memory is watching it with friends that summer and then scraping my money together to buy it used on VHS months later. Bonus points to the filmmakers that they released it “letterboxed” when no one else was (I don’t think there was ever a pan and scan version). For years I used it to explain the aspect ratio issue to the un-initiated. The movie definitely holds up after all these years. The sheer inventiveness and fun of the movie always reminds me how great a loss Jeffrey Boam was to film. Can you imagine if he were still writing today?

    Comment by maestro122 — July 3, 2012 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

    • Huh…I didn’t remember the VHS being letterbox only. Bonus points indeed. That was pretty early to be putting out a movie in letterbox, even if a pan and scan version had also been available. I’m with you on the early days of letterboxed home video releases. I tried to make people understand too, before it was a common feature. I recall a short, 5 or 10 minute piece that used to play between movies on American Movie Classics (AMC long before Mad Men and Breaking Bad, when it really showed classic movies the way Turner Classic Movies does now). It featured Roger Ebert using clips from famous movies to explain letterboxing/aspect ratios, and to illustrate what you’re missing with pan and scan. One of the examples he used was the famous shot in The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman standing in the background while Anne Bancroft rolls her stocking in the foreground. In the pan and scan version, you lost all that depth of field that made the shot so interesting, not to mention losing lots of space on the side. It was a total eye-opener for me.

      As for Jeffrey Boam, he had a pretty great run in the late 80’s. No doubt.

      Comment by DB — July 3, 2012 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

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