Warning: this double feature may make you itch. With summer movies getting bigger and bigger every year, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a pair of movies with microscopic themes. We should start with Joe Dante's Innerspace (1987), whose release was somehow botched over the July Fourth weekend. Perhaps it was bad advertising or something, but the movie just never did the business that it should have. I remember that in my small town, it never even turned up in a regular run during the summer. The first time I had a chance to see it was at a midnight show sometime after the school year started in the fall.
I have seen it many times since, and I'm always impressed at how smooth it is, and how well it sustains its mood, humor, character development, chases and everything else throughout its entire length. Of course, Dennis Quaid stars as Tuck Pendleton, a pilot who volunteers to be miniaturized and injected into a lab rabbit. Instead he is accidentally injected into Jack Putter (Martin Short), a supermarket clerk. (Gotta love those character names!) It's the ultimate mismatched pair to the rescue as they must enlist the aid of Tuck's angry girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan), defeat the villain known as the Cowboy (Robert Picardo) and get Tuck back to his normal size before he runs out of air.
Dante fills the film with his usual unique touches, including the casting of Picardo and Kevin McCarthy, and a cameo by Chuck Jones. But Steven Spielberg was a co-producer (as he was on Dante's hit Gremlins, from the summer of 1984), which may account for the streamlined look and feel, and the sheer entertainment value. But what's really unique about the movie is that the buddies never meet face to face until the very end, and they occupy different spaces throughout the movie. The film cuts back and forth between them, each dealing with their own roadblocks, and each influencing the other. Dante is really one of our smartest and most subversive directors, although this is arguably his most straightforward and sheer fun entertainment.
Another of our best directors is William Friedkin, who is, like Dante, underappreciated. He had a very brief heyday in the early 1970s when he won an Oscar for Best Director (for The French Connection) and then made one of the highest grossing films of all time with The Exorcist. Everything since then has been viewed as a decline, though he has kept up his fascinating attempts at thorough reporting and attention to detail, coupled with the ultimate realization that nothing is knowable (and even that is not knowable). In late May of 2007, his latest movie Bug was released, and -- as with Innerspace -- it was mismarketed, aimed at horror fans who could be conned into thinking this was a new Exorcist.
Of course, nobody nibbled, but a few critics praised it and I chose it as one of the year's best films. It's unique in Friedkin's filmography in that it deals almost exclusively with uncertainty, and has very little in the way of fact or detail. Ashley Judd stars as Agnes, a cocktail waitress who lives in a dingy room, hiding from her sadistic ex and mourning the loss of her son. She meets an ex-soldier (Michael Shannon), and they hit it off. Before long, he begins to suffer bug bites and discloses that he may have been the victim of military experiments (i.e. there may be microscopic bugs crawling around inside of him). Then Agnes begins to feel them too. Are they real, or is this couple on a joint paranoid bender?
Bug was based on a play and Friedkin was experienced in filming plays, so rather than "opening it up," he closed it in, shrinking the room, and making it creepier. If we were to compare Bug to The Exorcist, this wouldn't be the stuff in Regan's room, where she twists her head around and spews green vomit. Bug is more like the hospital scenes, in which Regan undergoes a series of cruel, horrifying tests with huge, sinister machines. Walking out of Bug, you may feel slightly chilled and disturbed and may wish to warm yourself with thoughts of Innerspace. But even then, you may want to go home and watch something about dinosaurs or battleships, just to regain your perspective.