The Incredible Shrinking Man is a film that catches you off guard. Not because a man doesn’t shrink – a man certainly does shrink in this one, rest assured – but because it at first feels like it’s going to be high concept. Y’know, watch a man shrink and have fun at the whacky antics. The title and first five or so minutes invoke that sort of expectation. But that isn’t what The Incredible Shrinking Man is. It’s actually genuinely existential and even a bit eerie by the end.
The film follows a man named Scott who is exposed to some radiation and, instead of becoming a Spider-Man villain, shrinks. Day by day he gets smaller and smaller. A simple premise but done perfectly using just about every film making trick in the book. First it’s costumes, with Scott’s clothes not fitting, then just something as simple as actor Grant Williams’ posture and positioning in a scene. Most notable when he’s at the doctor’s for the first time, I’m pretty sure the actor is slouching to make his clothes seem as though they’re even bigger on him then they were a scene prior, despite them being the same clothes, and the camera always has the doctor slightly in the foreground and upright, so he looks a taller.
As the film goes on, the sci-fi stuff starts to kick in. They go all out on set design to make everything look so much bigger, which works brilliantly. They get mixed results from back-projection to make regular size actors look like they fit on the massive set, while Williams’ doesn’t, and vice verse. Sometimes it looks good. Sometimes it doesn’t. But there’s not a lot of it, and the film leans more on the practical stuff to make you buy into it.
It’s not all just spectacle though, there is some pretty good character stuff going on. Though becoming physically smaller, Scott’s anger grows and he begins dominating his home and being more aggressive to his wife and brother as a means to offset his insecurity and thoughts that he no longer has purpose. He thinks he is a man capable of nothing but being laughed at in the newspapers. His wife loves him but grows every distant, his brother lends support but doesn’t seem particularly chummy with him and quick to write him off as dead later on.
And with this the tone becomes kind of grim for most of the middle. The film isn’t that long so it’s not like a total exploration of his sadness or anything, but it’s grim nonetheless. And just before it sinks into total despair, it changes almost entirely in what it is. Scott is now so small he has to live in a doll house, and is eventually chased into his basement, where he remains stranded, by his own pet cat. From here the film is about survival. He has to find shelter, a water source and craft tools. He’s too small to be seen or heard, even when people are looking for him or in the basement with him.
In this part of the film are some of the most creative and unique set pieces I think I’ve seen in sci-fi, and none of them involve lasers or spaceships. One is Scott trying to get food from a mousetrap, another is him crafting climbing tools from a needle and thread. He can’t cut the thread, so has to hold a match (much larger than himself) in both hands and run it across the ground to ignite it and burn the thread. He abseils up a chest cupboard to get some food. He must pass the between two separated wooden planks of a bench – an abyss to him – as part of his journey. With each obstacle Scott has a set of tools and we get to see him use the creatively both to successful and unsuccessful ends. In fact, the film will often show us Scott failing to do what he wants to do once or twice, followed by a period of thinking, before he actually achieves anything. And so you don’t need to be told that it’s him versus the world because you feel it in every action he takes. And because he’s only getting smaller, scene by scene, you feel the urgency of every action.
The climax gets to this perfectly. Scott must fight a spider twice his size to get the food under its web to survive. He goes in with a plan, executes it flawlessly, but fate does him wrong when it fails by chance. When Scott does defeat the Spider through sheer willpower and luck you still don’t particularly feel like he got lucky, though. Sure he won today, but what creature or abstract torture will he have to face tomorrow? He already lost against the cat, lost against being heard or seen by any normal size person and so he feels incredibly mortal.
Eventually the film ends on a note of acceptance, which is bittersweet at best. Scott accepts his position. So long as he exists he has purpose; he saw in the spider that it did not torment him out of cruelty, but out of a need to survive and he too finds purpose in survival. But as he accepts that he will shrink forever he says that there is no zero to God. And that’s horrifying, right? He will only become smaller and smaller, to a point that is incomprehensible, as he looks up at stars that appear small in the sky, but are really the size of our sun, or thereabouts.
Hey, maybe he’ll be in the next Ant Man movie?
The Incredible Shrinking Man is an incredibly creative and original film that takes a whacky idea and tries it’s best to take it seriously. And watching it unfold will glue your eyes to the screen for its short runtime, because it’s still fun and keeps you guessing by the end. I would highly recommend this entertaining movie.
That sad or bittersweet ending is very much there in Matheson’s novel too. I’m surprised (and glad) they kept it. I did a capsule write-up here:
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I haven’t read the book but by your notes the movie ends the exact same, and it works super well. I especially like how it becomes harder to tell he’s becoming smaller still towards the end – like when he looks out at the garden for the first time he cannot fit thrlugh the grating in the basement, but after beating the spider he can just walk through it. He is so small we can’t see how much smaller he’s becoming, and that’s not even the smallest he’s going to get. Will always like this movie, I think.