A Critical Essay on Joe Dante’s

Inner Space
(1987) -OrHow Joe Dante’s film explains the Eighties

First published in the December 2011 issue of

La Furia Umana/ 11

By John J. Kern 10/11/2011

-1For most of the 1980’s, the United States’ government embodied a truculent, macho attitude, especially with its dangerous nuclear tipped, ‘Star Wars’ foreign policy that viewed the world in terms of ‘good guys and bad guys;’ it’s not surprising then that the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was a former Hollywood B-movie actor, who became Corporate America’s spokesman for its version of the ‘American Dream.’ Under the leadership of this former movie star, capitalism in its most vicious, greedy form was sacrosanct, and its captains of industry and investors were consigned the task of disciplining a recalcitrant labor force. Consequently, investments like real estate, stocks, and bonds rose in value, whereas inflation and taxes on the wealthy, along with working class wages, were in decline. As a slick Reagan re-election campaign message in 1984 stated, “It’s morning again in America,” meaning imaginary small town values, balanced budgets at all levels of government, belief in a Christian God, hard work, a conservative social and economic belief system, technological optimism, prosperity, and abject fear of anything or anybody that didn’t fit the mold of ‘Americanism.’ 1 This sort of ‘Americanism’ was on prominent display in the films of the United States during the 1980’s. Films such as Missing in Action (1984), First Blood, the first Rambo film (1982), and Top Gun (1986) inverted the ambiguity and demonization of American imperial power that had arisen since the U.S.’ defeat in Vietnam a decade


Jenkins, Philip. Decade of Nightmares, the End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 pp 180-186


earlier, as well as the unseemly revelations of assassination of foreign leaders and various coups orchestrated by the CIA. 2 The decade also saw escapist fare like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Terminator (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and Batman (1989), accompanied by the teenage movies like the Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Other films like Porky’s (1982), Police Academy (1984), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and slasher flicks challenged good taste. What’s interesting about this trend of reducing everything to either good or bad was that the financial concerns of movie studios coincided with the political concerns of Washington policy makers. Washington was pitching a simplified world view for propaganda purposes, while Hollywood saw that its economic future lay with the juvenile market between 16-25 years of age. In essence, this trend could be called the "juvenilization" of American film culture. 3 The trend of depicting the world in such a black and white fashion started unraveling by 1987 with four events: the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in the former U.S.S.R., the ongoing AIDS crisis, the Boesky-Milken Wall Street, insider trading scandal, and the Iran-Contra Affair. The Chernobyl catastrophe and the AIDS epidemic challenged people’s assumptions about the efficacy of technological progress and challenged prevailing concepts of sexual identity, while the Iran-Contra Affair, an arms for hostage deal gone bad, undermined the whole edifice of the Reagan era by showing ugly corruption beneath the administration’s feel good facade. Finally, the insider trading

2 3

Jenkins, pp 200-202 Jenkins, Philip. pp 200-202


scandals demolished the image of the businessman as being trustworthy pillar of the community. 4 -2Strangely enough, one of the few films of the 1980’s that bucked the trend of showing a black and white world was Inner Space (1987), a science fiction -comedy from Director, Joe Dante. Remarkably, the film adheres to the era’s simplistic “good guybad guy” formula in its plot; however, the good guys and bad guys are afflicted with such humorous character flaws that the film subversively portrays the schizophrenic nature of the times. Inner Space is a live action cartoon about a macho, hard drinking test pilot, Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid), who accepts an assignment in a scientific experiment to be shrunken and fly a pod-like ship in the innards of a rabbit. But the experiment runs afoul of a high tech thief ring, and the pilot, whose career and love life are in steep decline, finds himself inside the body of a neurotic supermarket clerk, Jack Putter (Martin Short), who is also afflicted with a comedic dash of hypochondria. Jack teams up with Pendleton’s estranged, journalist girl friend, Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan) to rescue Tuck and foil the thieves’ nefarious plot to sell the secrets of miniaturization to the “evil doers” of the world. What follows is a madcap race to locate the MacGuffin- like microchip to restore Pendleton’s stature and love life, as well as to teach Putter how to be more assertively masculine. The villains are straight out of comic books and kid’s Saturday morning cartoons, with such colorful characters such as the thief ring’s leader, Mr. Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy), Margaret Canker (Fiona Lewis), Mr. Igoe-the Assassin, and the Cowboy (Robert Picardo), a fence for high tech stolen goods.

Jenkins, Philip. Pp 205-208; pp 273


The film literally pays homage to Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes, with its swift pacing, staccato editing, and rapid fire-double entendre dialogue. For example, after Lt. Pendleton hooks up his pod to Putter’s optic nerve and discovers he’s not in a rabbit, he screams, “I’m in a strange man in a strange room!” The film has Warner Brothers many cartoon motifs such as zany Rube Goldberg-like inventions that provide more amusement instead of utility, rabbits, a Bugs Bunny toy, wild chases that cleverly expand and shrink the cinematic space-time continuum, and even a cameo appearance of Chuck Jones, legendary Bugs Bunny animator in a hilarious dream come true sequence in a supermarket with an out of control cash register. Inner Space also pays homage to science fiction films-all of which have themes of paranoia, conspiracy, and environmental collapse: Fantastic Voyage (1966), the Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) , and Invasion of the Body Snatchers ( 1956) In fact, Dante has actors from two of these old science fiction movies in starring roles: Kevin McCarthy, the protagonist in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is the Reaganesque villain in Inner Space, whereas character actor William Schallert, who played the doctor in the Incredible Shrinking Man, repeats his performance as a doctor in Inner Space. Although Dante and his screenwriters, Chip Proser and Jeffery Boam, launch and sustain the Inner Space’s trajectory by consciously using material from cartoons and old science fiction movies, the comedy is a rich social satire that cleverly takes aim at the notions of technological progress and sexual identity. Inner Space undermines the notion that technological progress will led to utopia. In fact, the film suggests that the simultaneous and mindless pursuit of progress and profit


will lead to dystopia. For instance, Mr. Scrimshaw, the villain, realizes that the future of technological progress is not in the Cold War fueled, mega-technological wonders of outer space, but in the revolutionary miniaturization of electronic components then taking place in the mythological hype of Silicon Valley. Scrimshaw, however, states that the reason he’s stealing the chips is to sell them indiscriminately to the highest bidder. This ethically challenged attitude is mirrored in Mr. Igoe, the assassin, who uses “snap-on” prosthetic weapons on his right hand to dispatch his victims. Dehumanization through technological progress is also conveyed poignantly in the dialogue when Lt. Pendleton psychologically readies himself for combat by saying, "The Tuck Pendleton machine: zero defects." The theme of technological progress derailing human progress is further enunciated in the film’s depiction of a high tech ménage a trois between Tuck Pendleton, Jack Putter, and Lydia Maxwell, reminiscent of Francois Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim (1962). The high tech love triangle, as depicted in the film, speaks volumes about the meaning and the confused nature of sexual identity in America during the 1980’s. When a shrunken Tuck is inside of Jack’s body, he convinces Jack to help him. They have a drink together when Jack gulps down some whiskey, so that Tuck can retrieve some in his flask. Tuck drinks the whiskey, which came out of Jack’s throat and exclaims, "We're gonna drink this one to Ozzie, a good man who tried to save my ass by injecting me into yours." Is this a case of bizarre male bonding-known in post -modern parlance as Bromance- or the beginning of a beautiful relationship? Later in the film, Jack kisses Lydia, and the exchange of saliva propels Tuck’s miniaturized pod into Lydia’s body. When Tuck is in Lydia’s body, he discovers she’s


pregnant, re-igniting Tuck’s love for Lydia. But does Lydia really love or need Tuck, who’s really just in love with himself? Will she let Tuck back into her life? If she does, then she must kiss Jack again, and exchange some more saliva, so that Tuck can get out of her body and back into her life. But what of Jack? How does he feel about being the conduit of Tuck and Lydia’s love? Will Jack and Lydia fall in love? Maybe Lydia will leave both Jack and Tuck; and Jack, the Seventies’ sensitive male type, and Tuck, the aggressive, Eighties’ male type, will live happily ever after. The beauty of these implicit scenarios is that the implications, whether simple or complex, are up to the viewer.

At first glance, Inner Space is a typical 1980’s adrenaline fueled action and adventure movie, engineered for escapist thrills, chills, and spills. But upon viewing the film again, one soon realizes it is a far more complex than most films of the era. Although Inner Space reflects the culture of the period when it was made, it is a film that derives its material from films and cartoons from the past. The film is still relevant because it not only challenges our notions about technological progress and sexual identity, but mocks the conventional wisdom of a society that places more value on the bottom line rather than on creativity.


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