HBOMax Deep-Dives: Innerspace

Thanks to WonderWoman 84, HBOMax has seen a dramatic rise in subscriptions. But once a viewer has seen DC’s latest offering, what else can they find on the app? Fortunately, HBOMax has a much greater selection of films and television programs than subscribers may realize. In this series of articles, Combat Republic will take a deep dive into the HBOMax film library and review some of the site’s more obscure selections.

Innerspace (1987)

Coming off the success of 1984’s Gremlins, Joe Dante was a hot commodity in Hollywood. Speculation ran wild over Dante’s follow up, and the film he chose to make was Explorers (1985). The “children in space” feature, starring young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, was a complete disaster. With a $25 million budget, the film made $9 million upon release, swallowed up by the juggernaut of Back to the Future. After the Explorers disaster, Dante accepted an offer from Warner Bros. and re-team with Executive Producer and mentor Stephen Spielberg to work on a script he previously rejected. Dante agreed to work on a quasi-remake of Fantastic Voyage (1968) as long as they could turn the film into a comedy.

Innerspace introduces the viewer to Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid), a washed-up fighter pilot. Pendleton agrees to take part in a miniaturization experiment where Pendleton will pilot a pod inside a lab rabbit’s body. Unfortunately, during the experiment, a group of industrial thieves breaks into the testing facility in an attempt to swipe the technology and sell it on the black market. The lab director (John Hora) takes a syringe containing the shrunken Pendleton and escapes. He takes refuge in a nearby mall and, after being shot by an assassin with a robotic hand, injects the syringe, and Lt. Pendleton, into a hypochondriac Safeway clerk named Jack Putter (Martin Short).

At first, Putter believes that he’s losing his mind as Pendleton links into his host eyes and ears. Putter can hear Pendleton but refuses to admit that something is actually happening until the criminals make Putter their target. Putter learns that if they cannot retrieve a microchip to re-enlarge the pod floating inside of him in twenty-fours, Pendleton will die. Putter teams with Pendleton’s estranged girlfriend/reporter (Meg Ryan) to find an international arms dealer called The Cowboy to retrieve the microchip.

The film’s plot is ludicrous, and that’s why it works so well. Innerspace plays out as an everyman-meets-James Bond-style adventure that is bonkers. However, its characters are so endearing that the audience is completely along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Act three begins when Pendleton uses technology inside the pod to scan The Cowboy’s face and stimulate Putter’s facial muscles to transform him into a clone. The transformation scene is pure Dante, calling back to his Twilight Zone: The Movie featurette “It’s A Good Life.” It’s horrifying and hilarious enough to make sure the audience never asks just why this technology was designed for travel inside of a rabbit. If the experiment succeeded, would they have tried to transform the rabbit’s face?

It doesn’t matter, though. By this point, the audience is so invested in the characters that logic doesn’t matter. We’re just having too much fun to worry.

The over-the-top story rests solely on the performances. Quaid is great as a Hal Jordan-esque, drunk pilot with a heart of gold. While Martin Short taps just enough into his Ed Grimley persona to give Jack Putter the right amount of neurosis. Even in her second film role, Meg Ryan has superstar qualities. She’s talented and adorable. Star Trek veteran Robert Picardo nearly steals every scene as both the Cowboy and Face/Off-ed Putter. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) rounds out the cast, creating a textbook 1980s, money-obsessed villain. 

Innerspace is a wonder of practical special effects that hold up to viewing with 2021 eyes. The combination of trick photography, matte paintings, and miniatures gives the film a timeless quality that would have been lost had it been made a decade later with primitive CGI technology.

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t a hit at the box office. The title confused audiences. For some reason, the studio marketing campaign neglected to push the comedy in favor of the action. The bland trailer doesn’t feature either Ryan or the quirky villains, essentially hiding the movie’s strengths.

However, the film found a second life on video and on HBO, earning over $30 million upon its VHS release. Home Video made Innerspace a success and, in a way, helped save Joe Dante’s career. 

Innerspace is a fun film that embraces its 80s action roots but keeps a tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s well worth a reexamination on HBO Max.

***1/2

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