The Incredible Shrinking Man

The cellar stretched before me like some vast primeval plain, empty of life, littered with the relics of a vanished race. No desert island castaway ever faced so bleak a prospect.

I guess what makes Sci-Fi such a popular genre is the way it takes fantastic or exploitative elements and uses them to present a story that is not only entertaining but, at its best, also thought-provoking. It is a genre where the visuals are frequently required to play a significant role, although I get feeling some of the more modern efforts play this up to the detriment of other aspects. Ideally, a successful Sci-Fi film ought to be a blend of interesting and/or well-realized effects and solid, challenging writing. And the emphasis really needs to be placed firmly on the latter, in my opinion. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) constitutes a textbook example of what I’m talking about, with direction by Jack Arnold and a script (adapted from his own novel) by Richard Matheson – two accomplished genre practitioners.

The plot is a relatively straightforward one, following the fortunes of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and the bizarre turn his life takes after he’s exposed first to insecticide and then later to a cloud of radioactive dust. Neither one should amount to a big deal in isolation but the it’s the combination which sets in motion a genuinely life-changing process. It begins when Scott finds his clothes seem a little too big, his wife (Randy Stuart) initially scoffs that he’s just not eating properly but it soon becomes apparent that there’s something more unusual afoot. The plain fact is that he’s shrinking, getting progressively smaller and the doctors don’t look like they’re going to be able to halt it. The first half of the film focuses on the corrosive effect this has on Scott – his marriage comes under impossible strain, his job is gone and he becomes a virtual prisoner in his own home as the rubbernecking hordes jostle for a glimpse of this scientific conundrum. It’s no surprise that the poor man’s character begins to change too; his bitterness and frustration leads to a feeling of disgust with himself due to his apparent helplessness, and manifests itself in the increasingly snappy and intolerant way he interacts with his wife.

All of this is interesting enough and makes for compelling viewing. However, it’s the second half of the picture which bumps it up to a different level and takes it into the realms of the classics. In short, Scott is marooned in the wasteland that is the basement of his own home, presumed dead and threatened by both hunger and the kind of hazards one would merely brush aside normally. Everything comes together beautifully at this stage – the increased use of special effects, the tension and adventure arising from the new situation, and the spiritual and philosophical epiphany which Scott ultimately experiences. It’s this combination that so successfully draws one as a viewer, the excitement acting as the initial hook while the feeling and humanity which underpins it all reels one in.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is really a journey in search of oneself and, in the course of this quest, becomes a journey into the self. It’s all a matter of perception, ultimately; Scott starts out as man who defines himself in relation to the way the world around him perceives him. As he becomes physically smaller, so his sense of worth and vitality (even virility when it comes to his marriage) are diminished. There’s an intensifying frustration as he feels himself becoming less significant, transformed into a curiosity at best. But the moment he moves from the world he has known into the now nightmarish frontier that his own basement has become another change begins to take place. Forced to fall back on his own inventiveness and innate sense of survival, he comes to regard himself in a very different light. This is the point where Arnold’s directorial skills and Matheson’s writing make themselves most apparent – Scott’s battle to overcome the obstacles that nature has cast into his path restores his faith, and by extension ours too. There’s a sudden realization that the terms by which he had previously defined himself were wrong, or at least too rigid to be true. It all builds to that marvelous revelation that the smaller he becomes, the less it actually matters; in the grand scheme of things he continues to exist and influence whatever little corner of the universe he occupies, therefore his significance is not less just different.

Normally, I like to talk about the contributions of the various performers involved in a film. However, this time I’m going to confine myself to Grant Williams. He’s certainly not the only one in the movie but it’s his show for the most part and the focus is increasingly on him as the story develops. In a way, that structure mirrors the message of the tale – the character’s importance growing as his physical stature declines. Acting in any film which is heavily dependent on effects requires a fair bit of skill on the part of the performers as they often don’t have the visual markers to interact with. Williams had to deal with that aspect all the way through and in the latter stages it becomes all the more pronounced. I think it’s also worth noting that in addition to the relative lack of other performers to relate to, he had to contend with a role which was physically quite demanding.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has been issued on Blu-ray by Koch in Germany but I have only seen (impressive looking) screen captures of that disc. As it happens, I have two DVD versions of the movie: the stand alone  UK disc and the US one which is part of a large Sci-Fi set. There’s not a huge difference between those editions and the film looks generally fine, and is presented in its correct widescreen ratio. The classic era of Sci-Fi movies saw some schlock produced as well as some intelligent classics. The Incredible Shrinking Man is definitely one of the more intelligent entries – it’s also a moving and spiritually uplifting piece of work, perfectly encapsulated by Grant Williams’ closing monologue:

I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

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47 thoughts on “The Incredible Shrinking Man

  1. My favorite science-fiction film of all time. It always has been (saw it in 1957 on first release) and I’m certain it always will be. I’ve written on it in three different published pieces myself, and won’t add much now because you’ve evoked it all really well, especially that it is so spiritually transcendent in the end. Even at a young age, when I expected the more conventional ending (which the studio wanted to impose but Jack Arnold fought for what is there and won) I understood it was uplifting and meant to be that way. That’s a rare epiphany in any genre. Few fictional characters have ever had such a state of grace, and finished with such strength and serenity.

    I would just add this–you make allusion to later sci-fi being more carried away with special effects. One reason I like the 50s is that the ideas come first, and on relatively low-budgets, filmmakers were extremely resourceful and imaginative with the effects and they could do everything they needed to do to create those worlds, and this is such a great example of that.

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    • It’s a film which works well all the way through, but that ending just elevates it to another level altogether.

      I think it’s that inventiveness and focus on the ideas that makes the classic era of Sci-Fi so appealing to me too.

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  2. Beautiful review Colin. A high concept controlling idea that is perfectly suited to a SF subject whereby the metaphysical argument of the play is physicalised quite naturally (in this case as a progressive diminishing) in terms of a compelling drama within the genre.

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  3. Well done Colin! Superbly written and what a classic slice of science fiction to go for. Richard Matheson really was the man when he came to this stuff, wasn’t he? It’s a brilliant novel also, and the fact he wrote both means they’re more or less faithful to each other – I love too his novel I AM LEGEND and wish there was an adaptation that did it justice (though the Vincent Price starrer THE LAST MAN ON EARTH comes close, with Vince on subdued, underplaying form). I last watched this one not so long ago, but no viewing will ever better the one I caught as a kid, no doubt as part of a season on BBC2. When it turns out that there’s no reverse to his curse and instead the film ends on a philosophical and even metaphysical note my mind was blown. It’s great when a movie can produce that kind of reaction.

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    • Cheers, Mike. I can’t recall exactly when I first saw the film, but it was probably at quite a young age too. The ending could have been a real downer if not handled or written properly but that final monologue is a beautiful piece of work – it is metaphysical in that it moves beyond the confines of the body to touch on ideas about existence itself. The fact that this all seems to spin so naturally out of what has been working primarily as pulp fiction is testament to the skill and intelligence of Matheson’s writing.

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      • Yes, exactly that last sentence – every bit of marketing about the film focused on his duel with the spider, as though it was about special effects and action sequences (which as it happens I don’t think are half bad), but then it takes that turn right at the end and becomes something altogether more profound.

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        • I think the effects are great to be honest and the action and suspense scenes are directed with real panache by Arnold, not to mention Williams’ full-blooded performance. On those terms alone, we’re still looking at a very strong example of fantasy filmmaking. I guess I love the fact it’s effective on the pulpy and entertaining level and also weaves the intelligence and spirituality so seamlessly into all of that.

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  4. Great review, Colin! But then I expect no less from you.
    It’ s all been said above really and probably much better than I could. But it is an astounding film, thought-provoking and visually splendid. Quite simply my absolute favourite SF movie of all.

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    • Thanks for the compliments and I’m delighted to hear you’re a fan of the film too, Jerry. Mind you, I’ve yet to hear anyone have a bad word to say about this movie; there aren’t too many pictures where that’s the case and that alone speaks volumes.

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  5. Amazing movie. Haven’t seen it for years now, but several scenes are still lodged in my consciousness.
    The ending scene was always particularly powerful to me. I take it as a Spiritual realization on his part – that no matter what happens he will still Exist. He can never become NO THING. His shrinking has in fact, (ironically) expanded his consciousness – he has become larger. Self realization.
    So this simple theme does what all great SciFi should do.
    Heading back to the stable now.

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  6. Great writing and a fine choice Colin…..it’s good to see you take one step beyond Noir and
    Westerns. I think this is your second Arnold Sci Fi review.
    Hopefully more Sci Fi films will appear on RTHC from time to time.

    I have the Koch Blu Ray which I thought was worth the upgrade.
    The High Def version really rocks when Grant ends up in the basement.

    Arnold’s film along with Kurt Neumann’s THE FLY is among the Fifties great “Anxiety” movies.
    Having exhausted Cold War Nuclear fears and various critters from Mars not to mention giant bugs,
    Sci Fi film-makers turned to confronting our everyday fears and aspirations.
    In Arnold’s film Grant Williams literally shrinks out of middle American society.
    There is a slightly upbeat theme to the film-at first understandably bitter;he becomes more empowered the smaller he gets.
    In Neumann’s film David Hedison and Patricia Owens have the perfect upper middle class family
    life…this transforms into something increasingly horrific. There is no respite to their increasing anxiety.
    Both films make for an impressive if edgy viewing experience.

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    • Thanks, John. I enjoy varying the content here from time to time, and I will feature some more classic Sci-Fi for sure. I haven’t watched The Fly for years, although I do have a copy of the movie, but I remember the ending being quite creepy and horrific.

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  7. Off topic…..
    I think we have mentioned this film before somewhere but Network have just announced
    that they are going to release the Dan Duryea,Brit Noir DO YOU KNOW THIS VOICE remastered
    in widescreen…I’m pretty sure that will be one on your radar.

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    • Yes, I’ve seen that news and I’m very pleased. I found it a pretty good little movie and it will be nice to see it remastered – another one added to the list of Network titles to get in future sales.

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  8. This is one of those definitive moments from childhood. In the days before VHS and DVD this was a must see anytime it was on television and thankfully my Mom loved it as well so was quick to point it out to me when it was listed in the TV guide. Still love to revisit it on occasion.

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    • It looks like quite a few of us first saw the film at a young age and it struck a chord and stuck with us. Anything which can do that – speak powerfully and memorably to our younger and older selves – is a bit special, I think.

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  9. Pingback: Spring Fling: Year of Bests – 2016 | It Rains... You Get Wet

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