The Incredible Shrinking Man

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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.

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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.

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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!