CUP AS SIGNIFIER IN FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Even if you’ve never seen Richard Fleischer’s 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, you probably know how it goes. The subject of its own spin-off animated series, an Isaac Asimov novelisation or two, the 1987 rehash Innerspace and countless parodies, homages and references, this Jules Verne-like adventure sees a team of scientists miniaturised and injected, in an equally tiny submarine, into the body of a scientist. Their mission: to journey through the arteries and blood vessels of the man to his brain, whereupon they must destroy a blood clot that threatens his life. But there’s another story told in tandem through the film: that of the two military men overseeing the operation—played by Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell—and their cups of tea or coffee.
No less dramatic and on a similarly diminutive scale, the cup is used as a signifier within the film’s Big World to represent the miniature action transpiring offscreen, offering at the same time one of the few contextualising links between these otherwise polar scales. Under threat from the forces within the human body around them, working against a time limit after which they regain their size, carrying a saboteur of unknown identity in their midst and clearly the subjects of some very tenuous science, the tiny crew have no shortage of risk during the film. The mug, as we shall see, offers both an everyday, familiar salve against this minuscule menace, and a way to visualise and exacerbate the tensions of the tiny world when otherwise unseen.
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A long cinematic preamble culminates with the entrance of the ship into the bloodstream—but it’s not long before the first in a succession of situations goes awry. The ship, having encountered a whirlpool in the scientist’s body, gets sucked through an unanticipated slit between bodily tubes and down the wrong pipe.
Looking down upon the miniaturisation process and subsequent operation, O’Brien’s General and O’Connell’s Colonel are stationed in a raised control room lined with computer consoles. Our first sighting of the tea set occurs simultaneously with this perilous microscopic incident: cutting to Big World for the full-size overseers’ reactions to the mishap, we sight the cups and kettle atop a set of computers. It comes to mind that this isn’t the most advisable location for an open-topped container—on top of machines monitoring state-of-the-art experiments and/or life-or-death operations—but thus far the tea set, and the cup in O’Brien’s hand, seem relatively incidental.
Discussing whether or not to pull them out and abort the mission, O’Connell helps himself to the kettle and gives his cup a stir; our attention turns to the cup and its accompaniments as it becomes the subject of on-screen action. Rarely is cinematic focus given to something so seemingly irrelevant to plot, and as such we feel it might be a mistake. Cinema is so planned, so studied a medium that everything in the frame is assumed to be rigorously chosen. Usually we don’t spend so much screen time looking at, thinking about drinking equipment—with perhaps the exception of Disney’s 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast, in which said accoutrements sing the delightful ‘Be Our Guest’.
O’Connell replaces the spoon on the counter top and takes the cup over to the window so as to look down over the operation. We start to query not only the screen time already given over to the thing, but the characters’ priorities: is this not an incredibly precarious, once-in-a-lifetime situation transpiring beneath them? Shouldn’t they be concentrating? Do all the computer workers have drinks? And do all their drinks have lids?
A new plan is forged for the Little World adventurers and, as they discuss temporarily stopping the patient’s heart so the submarine can safely pass through its atria, the tea set is once again clear in the foreground of the scene.
Looking down on the operating theatre as they prepare to stop the patient’s heart, O’Connell’s mug is a flash of white against his military uniform. The mug must be strikingly visible to the surgeons below. Perhaps they feel cheated—that their supervisor’s role is one long tea break. Perhaps they feel he is incompetent, doesn’t take the situation seriously.
With the surgeons about to stop the heart, O’Connell leaves the mug on the rail. Tension mounts: is there glass between the control room and the operating theatre? Is the mug safe? What was he thinking?
It’s fine; he’s not gone far. Sitting at the console next to the window, monitoring the equipment, the mug is safe. Though perhaps we’d be happier if he were further from it.
The General comes over to get to work, but all we’re thinking about now is the mug: all he represents is another potential mug risk. He conceals it with his body, but we know it’s there. Will it still be there when he moves again, or will he have knocked it off? We might have stopped it, were we able to have kept our eyes on it.
The heart is stopped, but not for long. The ticking of a clock. The submarine rushes through. Beads of sweat. We still can’t see the mug.
Stand by to revive. The tension builds. The shot cuts off the hidden mug.
Eight seconds left. O’Brien moves away. The cup is still there, precarious. Phew!
The shot settles, the mug on its utmost border. Like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, we cannot be rid of this terrorising thing.
The heart is restarted, and the ship just makes it through. The cup is still there, the military relieved. Success!
O’Connell is sloppy and raises his hand. Perhaps he’s going to grab the cup, to secure it—but no, he puts his hand on the rail behind it. O’Brien moves away and he turns—be careful!
They stop moving—it’s fine. The coast is clear, though the cup remains precarious.
Oh! He knocks it down! Well, in a way, now that it’s actually happened it was a relief: with all that pent-up tension, the cup falling acts as catharsis, dispelling our concern and offering closure. At least it fell into the control room and not down below.
Later on, and further into the microscopic adventure, another problem arises: this time, the tank in the tiny sub has run out of air and needs refilling. Happily, they just so happen to be in the patient’s lungs, so out they get. All the more dangerous outside the safety of the ship, the risks hovering over the miniature adventurers are mirrored by O’Brien’s pouring of the kettle over the computer console. He’s not even looking.
Tipping in an impossible amount of sugar, the General justifies himself to the Colonel. “Oh, I can’t help it. I’m just weak, I guess.” At first this seems irrelevant, but then we realise—that health is a hidden thing, a tension we can’t fully gauge. Like the health of the patient down below, like the invisibly microscopic journey taking place in the background with its invisible microscopic threats. O’Brien relies on his fix, emphasising our lack of one as viewer.
As the tiny crew refuel, in Big World we look down over a console. O’Brien’s hand is dangerously close to the cup, and nobody’s paying attention. Will he, won’t he? He doesn’t.
Later, and yet another danger. Somebody’s sabotaged the laser gun on the ship—the surgical tool needed to zap away the blood clot in the patient’s giant brain. As the miniature crew determine to fix the thing by cannibalising their wireless radio—thus disabling their only form of communication with the full-size, outside world—O’Brien paces up and down. The tea set retakes the centre of the stage.
Pushed for time before they start to regain full size, the crew journey through the patient’s inner ear. It’s incredibly dangerous: one infinitesimally small sound in Big World translates to shattering vibrations for the miniature submarine and its inhabitants. Then, when the ship gets stuck in a kind of calcified seaweed, the crew must journey outside, thus greatening the risk. The doctors in the operating theatre stand still like statues, silent, beads of sweat dripping unchecked down their brows.
Clearly suffering, O’Brien takes his cup over to the kettle for a refill. Noticing the granules of sugar scattered messily across the top of the console, he spies an ant going to town on the stuff.
His thumb poised to squish the little creature, O’Brien thinks again and retracts his menacing digit, letting the ant live. He’s been on a journey, it seems; he has a new-found respect for the incredibly small, knowing now as he does that another world exists down there.
“You’ll wind up a Hindu,” O’Connell observes. “They respect all forms of life, however small.”
Having cleared the seaweed off the ship and made it back inside, the men of the crew settle down to give Raquel Welch’s character—cocooned in the stuff, which also seems to be petrifying—a lengthy therapeutic body rub. Everyone’s safe now; the General pours.
“Twelve minutes left.” O’Brien goes to pour a clearly empty pot of sugar. Disheartened, deprived of his vice, he complains. His aides share a smile.
That’s it for the tea set; nearing the end of the film, screen time is given over to the dramatic denouement and the pursuant race against time to exit the body. We’re at last, it seems, too busy for refreshments; this is serious. The crew wash up via the tear duct, O’Connell happily predicting this change of plan and being on hand with a glass slide.
The crew are returned to full size, and we’re left with this shot—this last sense of the miniature—as the end credits roll. Scientists and doctors rush over the hexagonal honeycomb floor to congratulate the crew, buzzing around with bee-like industry. We are ourselves but tiny creatures, living out tiny plans. Regardless of scale, drama echoes equal throughout; there is no difference, the film says at last, between a storm in a teacup and a teacup in a storm.