The Incredible Shrinking Man, made by the masterful Jack Arnold in 1957, is something of a miracle in the Sci-Fi/B-Movie world. Under the guise of a drive-in feature, Richard Matheson's adaptation of his own book exists still as one of the most fascinating tales of survival ever put on the screen.
The film's opening is similar to many films from its era in which a strange event affects the characters and brings doubt into a seemingly perfect world. That world probably bordered on the one inhabited by Leave it to Beaver before this event, but it will surely never be primetime TV in the wake of such a catastrophe. In this case the "event" is the presence of a radioactive cloud that is encountered by a man named Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams). Though most would say Scott is a victim of circumstance, some might say that this all happens because he was too lazy to go get his own damn beer...were he any kind of a gentleman, we'd be talking about The Amazing Shrinking Woman and Randy Stuart (which I just learned is a) the name of the woman who played Scott's wife, Louise; and b) a woman) would be our lead.
As time passes in the wake of this event, Scott realizes he's getting smaller. At first it's just a couple of inches and a few pounds, but things continue to accelerate and Scott loses his job and becomes an outcast. It isn't long before Scott's story makes him a three-foot tall celebrity, but he's the kind of celebrity who hates himself for what he is. He becomes mad at the world and only finds happiness when he meets a female dwarf who convinces him that life is OK for the small. This only lasts to the point when Scott becomes a few inches shorter than her, and his rage returns. Scott then ends up living in a dollhouse on an end table (that's really too small for a dollhouse, by the way), cursing life further.
Throughout the first half of the film, Scott Carey is a sad individual that represents many of the problems that have plagued humanity's brief existence. He grieves his appearance and becomes impatient with others, because they can't possibly understand the issues he is dealing with. This instills a hostile attitude toward others - who are at the same time going out of their way to help him - and believes that he cannot be a functional part of the world due to his disability. I posed the issue of his laziness saving his wife the same fate as a joke earlier, but I really am concerned about this version of Scott. If he were the one caring for her as she suffered this fate, would he have dealt with things with any grace or sympathy, or would he have cut and run as soon as he had the chance? His behaviors lead me to believe the latter.
Fate doesn't smile on Scott, and a run in with the family cat - which now dwarfs his 2-3 inch length - leaves Louise assuming Scott is dead and eaten. Scott actually has been forced down into the cellar, where he struggles to survive by fashioning weapons out of pins, sleeping in a matchbox, and stealing cheese from a mousetrap.
It is in this purgatory that Scott begins to change his thinking. Surviving an encounter with the resident spider becomes a far bigger concern than any of his previous earthly desires, and - with no way to get back up the stairs and Louise moving out to avoid her memories - the prospect of this being a permanent hell becomes far too real to Scott. As he realizes the challenges that face him, he grows more and more accepting of his place in the great big world. This might be due to the sense of accomplishment that comes with surviving what is essentially a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it might also mean that Scott is believing in something bigger than himself and the challenges around him.
As the short film (har har!) barrels to an anticlimax (given an extra dose of theology by a tacked on inner monologue by Arnold that fits with the pulp sci-fi films of the '50s) the viewer begins to care deeply for Scott in his quest to survive. His misplaced desires and poor choices fade away as we witness him work to survive, and his willingness to tread forward and face his limitations is infectious. The tentacles of the spider and a surprise flood suddenly become effective to the viewer, because we've seen Scott's past faults break apart with our own eyes.I'm waxing pretty deeply about a film that features a tiny man battling cats and spiders, but that's the beauty of The Incredible Shrinking Man. At its core the film is a commentary on the human condition, and while the final moments may journey a little too closely to religion for some viewers, the point the film makes serves no specific doctrine. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a simple reminder that everything we have built up can be taken from us by any combination of time and/or the elements; and that only those who are willing to adapt to life will find peace in it.
Anyone who says otherwise is telling a tall tale. (Har har!)
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