One of the earliest, and still possibly the best film about changing sizes, The Incredible Shrinking Man takes the ordinary and mundane and makes it fantastic and dangerous!
Richard Matheson and Jack Arnold team-up to create an intriguing science-fiction film about an ordinary man whose life is upended by forces he cannot control. The Incredible Shrinking Man takes Scott Carey where no man had gone before, breaking bounds for the sci-fi and fantasy genres, as well as establishing Matheson as a solid storyteller who could delve into the human condition.
The plight of a young man, Scott, apparently exposed to some sort of mist, causes him to begin shrinking smaller and smaller. At first it’s a just a belt loop or two, but soon he’s small enough to be menaced by a cat and then by a spider. How far will he shrink and what can stop it! When the surroundings of one’s own home becomes strange and inhospitable, imagine how you would react!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Incredible Shrinking Man is a classic film that presents the diminishing height of an individual as a tragic story that delves into mankind’s place in the universe. On a sunny day, out at sea, Scott and Louise Carey (Grant Williams and Randy Stuart) are enjoying a beautiful day on a personal boat. When she heads below-deck to get some drinks, the boat drifts through a mysterious fog, coating Scott in a glittering sheen. The couple thinks nothing about it and continue with their life.
Six months later, Scott realizes his clothes don’t fit him properly. Consulting with Dr Bramson (William Schallert), Scott realizes he’s down almost two inches from his previous height. The doctor feels he must be mistaken. But as Scott’s life goes on people can no longer ignore the fact that is actually shrinking. Stopping at around three feet, the height of a young boy, Scott is able to continue a somewhat normal routine, albeit confined to his house. He continues writing a book while his marriage has become strained.
Scott decides to leave one night, and avoiding the gawking public, finds himself outside the local circus. He is disgusted that he is now akin to a sideshow freak, and leaves the area, settling in a local coffee shop. There he meets Clarice Bruce (April Kent), who is approximately his size, and a member of the circus. The two begin a friendship as she convinces Scott that there’s nothing wrong with being small. Just as he seems to be coming to grips with his new stature, he begins to shrink again, fleeing from Clarice in fear and shame.
Scott is soon living inside the family’s doll house, wearing clothes designed for a toy. His thoughts race from manic depression and suicide to anger and frustration with his wife for walking too loudly. When Louise goes out one afternoon, the cat accidentally gets inside and proceeds to hunt Scott like the mouse-sized human that he is. Fleeing the cat, Scott falls into the basement and becomes trapped. Louise returns to find the cat licking its paw, and a small bloody rag from where it swiped at Scott. She can only assume he’s dead.
Stuck in the basement, and still shrinking, Scott can now make his home in an empty matchbox. His efforts to contact Louise are all in vain, due to his diminutive nature. His main concern, however, has become his daily survival. He finds some cheese on a mousetrap, but in an effort to free it, ends up launching it out of his reach. His ability to procure water is solved when the water heater develops a drip, but food is still a struggle. The only noticeable source is a piece of cake, on a ledge far above him. It also is guarded by a spider, which provides Scott with one further obstacle.
From this moment on Scott vows to dominate his world as he finds a way, using thread and dress pins, to create climbing and defensive gear. He manages to reach the cake and defeat the spider, but upon returning to his domicile, he is nearly washed away when the water heater ruptures, flooding the basement. As he continues to shrink, Scott finds his hunger abates, as does his fear. He is able to walk thru the screen on the window of the basement and into the garden, shrinking into infinity while his consciousness expands ever upward, finally reaching, what he believes to be God.
“People just don’t get shorter Mr. Carey. They just don’t get shorter.” – Dr. Arthur Bramson
History in the Making
The Incredible Shrinking Man is an important film in the history of sci-fi for several reasons. This was director Jack Arnold’s last major sci-fi film, which was a career high-point for him. He would continue on directing westerns and episodic television, but never reach the heights from the early 50s as he had with films like Creature from The Black Lagoon and Tarantula. The screenplay, by Richard Matheson, was based off his 1956 novel titled simply, The Shrinking Man. This was Matheson’s first film adaptation in a career that would include no less than three versions of his story I Am Legend, a dozen of The Twilight Zone’s best episodes, as well as a Star Trek episode, several of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and posthumously, the film Real Steel.
Together Arnold and Matheson quietly ushered in a new age of sci-fi. One in which the protagonist was a normal man. One that was thoughtful to the human condition. And one which didn’t rely on a ‘Hollywood’ ending to pacify the viewer. They wanted to raise questions, larger philosophical questions with the audience, and as such opted to keep the original ending in which Scott fades away to nothingness.
While The Incredible Shrinking Man was not the first film to deal with a shrinking human (1940s Dr. Cyclops has that honor), it was the first film to do so eloquently. Size change films with animals had been popular with Hollywood for several years by this point, but had finally started to cool. However, changing the sizes on humans was just getting started. Literature had been working with the diversity of scale at least since 1726 with Jonathan Swift’s publication of Gulliver’s Travels, featuring the small Lilliputians, and the giant Brobdingnagians. Film had been slower to adapt due to technical concerns, but as advances in rotoscoping, matte photography, and optical printing improved so could the effects needed to realistically portray a miniature human in a normal sized world. Today there’s been no shortage of films showing size change including Fantastic Voyage (and it’s 80s counterpart Innerspace), Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and the recent superhero smash Ant-Man.
It proved, in an era of uncertainty, that a genre film didn’t have to end happily. While many may consider the ending to be a downer, there’s actually a lot of hope instilled in it by Arnold and Matheson. Scott’s tortuous life, which led to strained marital relations and feelings of self-loathing, loss of identity, and suicide, is finally allowed a freedom as he comes to finally accept his plight. Scott is able to battle insurmountable odds, but in the end death comes for us all. He is able to choose how he faces his demise, and does so with grace and wonder, rather than fear. The film shows that mankind is noble and deserving of the things that have been provided to it.
The strongest theme provided by The Incredible Shrinking Man is probably the dominance of man over nature. The world in the opening of the film is carefree. Scott and his wife are sailing on the ocean, drinking and enjoying life. Their survival has been afforded to them by the society as a whole, rising up above, and conquering nature. It’s almost as if the modern man (of the 50s) were above the petty concerns of basic necessities, such as ‘where will my next meal come from,’ or ‘how will i survive the night?’
Matheson then introduces the mysterious fog bank. Suddenly nature is fighting back against this human parasite. It’s unknown what the fog is, but it’s something that changes Scott’s worldview forever. Suddenly, his concerns for his survival grow, as he shrinks. He realizes that he is no longer in charge of his destiny, and will once again have to “dominate his world,” as he puts it. Striking down the tarantula allows Scott to again seize the illusion of mastery, but that’s all that it is, an illusion. For nature continues to show him that it, in the end, is the true master.
The film also explores societal implications of height, and gender for that matter, on its characters. Scott’s masculinity is somehow tied into his height, and as he shrinks, he feels the marriage and his potency slipping away from him. Discovering that there are other individuals, like Clarice, that are his size placate him momentarily. He discovers a new norm. She tells him that she’s been this height her whole life, and that things can be OK. Seemingly, he’s fine so long as he can be taller than Clarice, but when that changes, again he runs off, ashamed and despondent. The film doesn’t explore social norms that come when comparing small people versus giants, but future films in this series will look at the differences on how these two size ranges are treated (smaller equals sympathy, while larger usually indicates rage and violence).
The Science in The Fiction
The Incredible Shrinking Man makes some attempts to explain Scott’s tragedy, but what comes of it seems forced and akin to techno-babble. After the exposure to the fog, it takes Scott six months to begin showing signs of shrinking. One of his doctor’s asks about exposure to any insecticide recently. They believe that the chemical triggered a rearrangement of his cells, something like an “anti-cancer” that has somehow caused his cells to begin shrinking proportionately.
While this reasoning is obviously a response to needing some kind of explanation for Scott’s condition, it doesn’t really explain anything. Nothing at least that important. And there’s no time spent on the explanation beyond this quick scene, so no damage is done to the narrative. Similarly, the plight of Scott’s survival shrinking to the size of a penny is not only limited to his size, but also the endothermic reactions of his body. His ability to retain heat would be such that a Robinson Crusoe style outfit that he wears would not work for him.
But given those concerns, the survival ability of the character is strong point of the film. Audiences are rooting for him to continue, to survive against increasingly insurmountable odds. Scott shows the drive of the human spirit to exist, and to overcome. However, in comparison to the universe, humans are very, very tiny.
The Final Frontier
The narration provided throughout the film is from Scott Carey. He is recounting his story to the audience. As with most narration in film, the narrator is assumed to be a living character from the film, so the surprise that Scott dies at the end of this film comes as a bit of shock. It’s a similar narrative element as the Joe Gillis character in Sunset Boulevard (1950). That film opens with his character dead in the pool, but he narrates the story nonetheless. Whether this is an homage or just a narrative conceit may never be known.
Another curious element, which is more like a nod to Jack Arnold’s previous work is the type of spider Scott fights in the basement. In the original novel, he fought a black widow spider, which is a perfectly acceptable type of spider for a Southern California basement. But in the film Arnold used a tarantula for two possible reasons; one being that they’re definitely more cinematic and scarier, but also as an homage to his 1955 giant spider film of the same name. Purportedly tarantulas are easier to work with in film than other types of spiders, so that’s probably the main reason, but it’s a fun little moment to realize that this giant tarantula is only normal sized, unlike his previous film in which is was larger than a house.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is a great film to put on television on a Saturday. It’s a fun movie, but at the same time does what other great sci-fi stories do by achieving a greater understanding of humanity and the human condition.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.