“The Incredible Shrinking Man” comes from a genre I feel I know a lot about but have actually not seen many movies from: 1950’s science fiction. I went into it thinking it would look horribly dated and laughable for all the wrong reasons. What I instead discovered was a film which actually holds up very well after half a century with its terrific special effects and strong performances. It also deals with themes and situations which prove to be as relatable today as they were back in the time this film was released.
Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is spending an enjoyably sunny day on a boat with his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart), when a strange mist passes through him and spills some glittery substance over his body. Louise manages to not get covered by this same substance as she was down below getting a beer for her husband because men can be schmucks when they ask their spouses to get them things they should be able to get themselves (that’ll show him!). Now Scott thinks nothing of what happened until he suddenly notices his shirt is now too big for him, and then his wedding ring falls off his finger which is clearly not a good omen.
After being examined by his doctors, Scott discovers that the glittery substance is not the same kind gay groups doused Newt Gingrich with during his needless run for President of the United States. Whatever is causing him to shrink, his attempts to reverse this unfortunate condition his fail. At one point, Scott becomes so tiny to where he is forced to seek refuge in a doll house for his own safety. This makes sense until the household cat ends up mistaking him for a mouse, and he ends up running into the basement where he is forced to face dangers no human being should ever have to.
What I found endlessly fascinating about “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is that what people end up enduring after attaining an odd and unwanted fame is not much different from what anyone would experience today. Scott ends up selling his story to the press not to become famous, but because he no longer has a job and needs the money for his wife and himself to survive. The more of a curiosity he becomes, the less human he is seen by the world.
Today, if someone were going through this, we might expect them to be more forthcoming about becoming famous for something they did not exactly want to become known for as there is much money to be made, and an obscene amount at that. In the process, it is easy to forget the humanity of certain people involved, and “The Incredibly Shrinking Man” deals with the inescapable loneliness which results.
Scott clearly does not want all these photographers parked outside his front door, but he is helpless to stop their onslaught. Then again, imagine if he was dealing with this today; he would have no privacy whatsoever. It would not matter if he spent his days indoors because the damn paparazzi would find a way to get inside and snap a picture of him. Even though Scott vents at his wife against his better judgment, you I could not help but feel for him as he goes through a process no one would want to endure. That is, unless they were ridiculously desperate for some kind of attention.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” really picks up an extraordinary amount of tension when Scott gets stuck in that basement. The special effects up to this point are very well executed, but they take on a bigger challenge when Scott is no bigger than the match box he hides in. The use of forced perspective and real physical structures makes his predicament all the more thrilling and emotionally involving. The simple act of getting food becomes a life-or-death struggle, and I felt for him as he was forced to climb up towards a stale piece of bread using only a needle and thread.
Even the simplest effects make Scott’s struggle all the more brutal as the merest failure will force right back to the start, and we can identify with the infinite frustration this causes no matter how big or small we are. But what makes his fight for survival all the more viscerally frightening is the scary-looking spider (is there any other kind?) he is forced to do battle with. It is moments Scott shares with this spider which had me the most frightened and on the edge of my seat. For a film which is now a century old, this is saying a lot. That, and I cannot stand spiders in general.
Much credit should be given to Williams here as he does not always make Scott the most likable human being. Still, whatever you may think of him, Scott is made to experience something no other human being has. While you may want to chide Scott for the way he unloads his frustrations on those closest to him, watching him makes me wonder if I would have reacted any differently. I would like to think so, but perhaps a lot of wishful thing is involved there.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is based on a book by Richard Matheson entitled “The Shrinking Man” (he found the “Incredible” adjective to be unnecessary). Matheson has been responsible for some of the greatest science fiction stories ever told such as “I Am Legend,” various episodes of “The Twilight Zone” like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and the short story “Button, Button” which became the basis for “The Box.”
I think “The Incredible Shrinking Man” represents one of the finest adaptations of Matheson’s work as it deals with the humanity of Scott’s situation as much as it does with visual effects. The effects are great, but it is our relation to Scott and what he is going through that makes this movie work so effectively. No one wants a household spider to suddenly become bigger than they are, but this film forces you to deal with these fears to where they are more real than you could ever expect them to be.
This is also a film which has a voiceover narration to accompany its events. When it comes to this way of telling a story, it can go either way; At times, it can tell us things we do not need spelled out to us, but here it also gives great depth to the film’s themes as it makes Scott’s view of his existence change throughout in ways both positive and negative.
The ending still haunts me even long after I watched it. The conclusion is solemn in a way as Scott becomes resigned to his downsized fate, but it is also strangely hopeful as he becomes convinced he will still be a part of this vast universe no matter how small he gets. Even in the 1950’s, filmmakers did not take the easy way out when wrapping up a motion picture. It is not an “everything is going to be okay” ending, but it is not a complete downer either.
I was surprised at just how much I got into “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” The title seems to imply we are about to see something endlessly cheesy, but this film proved to be thrilling and had me on the edge of my seat throughout. I imagine Hollywood will eventually remake it someday and turn it into a comedy, but they will not be able to touch the deeper meanings of what Richard Matheson was getting at. Please feel free to prove me wrong, but you will need a lot of luck in the process.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: This film is now available in a special edition from the Criterion Collection. Click here to find out more.