The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

June 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Writer Richard Matheson has a list of accomplishments that include some of the more celebrated original Twilight Zones episodes (and my personal favourite, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), a thoughtful original Star Trek, and the novella I Am Legend, a gripping book made into a film no less than three times over the decades. The adaptation of his book The Shrinking Man is among his earliest work for film and TV, and while it’s a largely straightforward science-fiction journey — one that’s engaging and has impressive production values — the film also has touches of thoughtfulness that are typical for Matheson, and make the film something more than pure entertainment.

Our hero Scott Carey (Grant Williams) seems like a fairly typical guy, and he is. Scott loves his wife and playfully tries to get her to bring him a cold beer, but before long he’s troubled by a radioactive cloud, and other foreign materials that begin to act on his body. By the time he’s shrinking, consulting doctors and trying to avoid the media, it’s clear he hasn’t just been dislodged from his typical physical form, but his perception of himself as well. At three feet tall, he’s throwing tantrums at his wife (“Look at me!”) and trying to miserably sort out a new identity by flirting with a midget passing through town as part of the circus. And while that level of coincidence (I’m shrinking, and hey you’re a cute midget!) does make the middle part of the film a trifle forced, Matheson does well as a writer to imagine what psychological disruptions would accompany the physical ones, and the effects hold up well enough today to make the film interesting, and not laughable.

Next, he takes it a step further. We see Carey fighting off a cat in an effects sequence that must’ve been the equivalent of Jurassic Park in the 1950s, and finally he’s lost in the basement duking it out with a spider for a few crumbs of cheese. It’s almost as if the film says look, you think this is bad?  Try this. And Carey is forced to redefine himself again and again. There are two things I like about the ending (a few spoilers ahead). First of all, nobody saves him. Frequently science-fiction films manage to imply that we can mess with the world any way we want, because we’ll find a way to fix it. But nothing like that happens. Secondly, Carey ends up with a newly redefined sense of self and purpose that truly accepts that, well, size doesn’t matter. It manages to subtly challenge our deeply engrained ideas about importance, and status. He closes the film with these lines of monologue: “And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears locked 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.”

In short, an entertaining film is brought to a new level by a writer sensitive and intelligent enough to avoid complete closure, give his character some measure of enlightenment, and recognize that people matter, not their roles. My only complaint has nothing to do with the film, but is because it’s only available on monster and science-fiction collections, grouped with far cheesier films. According to Wikipedia it was recently named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and marked for preservation. A DVD release on its own with a documentary would also do a lot for the film.

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