The Incredible Shrinking Man, released by Universal in 1957, is generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of 1950s science fiction. Director Jack Arnold made many of the most respected of 50s sci-fi flicks, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (one of the most lyrical and sensitive of all monster movies). And there’s certainly much to like and admire in The Incredible Shrinking Man.
With a screenplay by Richard Matheson (certainly one of the greats of science fiction and horror screenplay writing for both film and TV) based on his own novel the movie achieves a genuinely epic quality. Epic not in the sense of money spent, or length, or spectacular effects, but epic in a true sense. It presents a struggle for survival that has mythic overtones.
Scott Carey is just a regular guy until a chance encounter with a radioactive cloud (this was 1957, when radioactivity explained absolutely everything) changes his life forever. He finds that he is slowly but surely getting smaller. Pretty soon he’s only three feet high. And although some clever scientist chappies manage to arrest his shrinking for a while, pretty soon he’s shrinking again. His wife has to find new housing for him - in a doll’s house! Unfortunately the family cat discovers there’s this cute little man in the doll’s house who would be such fun to chase. In the process of being chased, he falls into the cellar.
Being only a few inches high he has no means of escape. The cellar becomes his universe. He’s like a prehistoric man, alone in a vast and threatening world and forced to rely on his wits fir survival. And he has a deadly enemy. A spider. A spider that is several times bigger than he is.
The special effects hold up remarkably well, and his war with the spider is like the struggle of a hero in a Greek myth to overcome a deadly and malignant giant. It’s played totally straight, and Jack Arnold resists any impulse to go for laughs at any stage. The approach works. Grant Williams as the hero also plays the role completely straight, and gives his character real dignity.
This movie is nothing if not ambitious, and it’s aiming at making nothing less than a major philosophical statement about the nature of existence, our place in the universe, and the Meaning of Life. That’s where it all falls apart, for me at least. The ending had me cringing in embarrassment. But other people like the ending, so maybe it’s just me. I have the same reaction to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I seem to be in the minority on that one as well.
Whatever you think about the ending this is a supremely well crafted film and it’s definitely worth seeing.
The Incredible Shrinking Man has had several DVD releases and is readily available in most markets.