Published on July 20, 2016
The makers of “Inside the Living Body,” on the National Geographic Channel, are probably tired of the comparison, but what can you do: the reference point for all journeys through the human body remains “Fantastic Voyage.”
In purely visual terms, this new television documentary trumps that 1966 film, even though “Fantastic Voyage” won Oscars for art direction and special effects. “Inside the Living Body” sends cameras into places that you never thought you’d see in this kind of detail. The best images tend to be both transfixing and disturbing — this may be the kind of program that your 50-inch high-definition set was made for, but were you envisioning two-foot-tall nose hairs when you bought it? (They look very solid, like rebar sprouting at a construction site.)
In narrative terms, though, I’m going to have to stick with “Fantastic Voyage.” Those tiny scientists had one hour to sail into a man’s brain and dissolve a deadly clot.
“Inside the Living Body” spends its two hours tracing the life of a nameless, personality-free everywoman, played by a series of increasingly older performers, from birth to near death, using cameras, scans and animation to show us what would be going on inside her body at various ages. Interspersed with the scientific good stuff are amateurish scenes — karaoke-video quality, really — of her life on the outside, which appears to include a lot of walking around and smiling pensively at the thought of getting older.
These attempts to humanize (and sentimentalize) the material are just clutter, and they may drive you away before the living body reaches puberty. Luckily, the coolest stuff comes in the first half-hour, and if you have a healthy curiosity and, in some cases, a strong stomach, it’s worth your attention — you won’t see anything like it on “House” or YouTube. (Well, except for the fairly tame clip from the program that National Geographic posted last week.)
Right off the bat we watch our everywoman being born, and we see the event from both inside and outside her mother’s body, in surprisingly intimate detail. Soon we’re inside the baby’s heart, watching as it plugs the holes that allowed it to function in the womb.
The program’s pièce de résistance — and the sequence that will tell you if you’re truly interested in seeing what goes on beneath your skin — is the baby’s first solid meal, which is followed from mouth to dirty diaper. The images of food plopping into the stomach, passing through the pyloric sphincter into the small intestine and then squirting through the ileocaecal valve are eerie and astounding; they may not be for everyone, but if you want reality, it doesn’t get any more real than this.