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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Incredible Shrinking Man

Here is another of the timeless classics of 50s sci-fi. Even though shot in black and white, it is far above the usual B-grade movies. Universal was making a name for itself as a producer of above-average sci-fi films. The acting is A-grade performances. The sets and props were reasonably good. The premise would become trite in later decades. But in early 1957, the idea of a man shrinking, becoming tiny in our giant (normal) world was still fairly fresh. The writing was also tight and thoughtful, giving the film a depth far beyond its gimmick. Incredible Shrinking Man (ISM) was not the first film to shrink humans via camera effects, but, it has proven to be the most memorable.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Scott Carey and his wife Louise are relaxing on a boat in the ocean. While Louise is below fetching him a beer, a mysterious fog bank looms up and envelopes the boat. Scott is exposed, and covered with glittery sparkles. Months later, he notices that his clothes feel big on him. Despite much denial by his wife and doctor, he is obviously shrinking. He is sent to a research hospital where they discover that his body has a sort of reverse cancer. His genetic make-up is altered such that all his cells are getting smaller. The doctors theorize that the mysterious radioactive mist altered him. Exposure to a strong pesticide triggered the effect. They attempt to formulate a cure, but it ultimately fails. Scott is now so small that he lives in a doll house. His wife inadvertently lets in the pet cat when she leaves. Scott narrowly escapes the cat, but falls into a box of rags in the basement. Louise finds his tiny blood-stained shirt and assumes the cat ate him. Scott, now only 2" tall, lives in the basement. His voice is too feeble to be heard. His water comes from a water heater leak, his shelter is a matchbox. For food, he must scale a wooden cliff to get to some old dry cake Louise forgot. The water heater bursts, sending a flood that sweeps him away. Louise and Charlie come downstairs to get a trunk. Scott's voice far too feeble to hear. They leave. Scott re-climbs the wooden cliff and battles the spider to the death. Now so small that he can get out the window screen. In an extended soliloquy, Scott reflects on meaning in the universe. He accepts his fate. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Almost everything about this film is well done, tightly paced and well shot. There is more thoughtfulness to it than mere novelty. Jack Arnold (of Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Tarantula, fame) keeps the visuals impressive. Light, tonalities, angles, it all works well. This is one of the 50s' classics and for good reason.

Cold War Angle
There's not much of the Cold War in ISM. The only connection is that it's a cloud of radioactivity which drifts over Scott on the boat. Radiation, once again, is the bringer of doom. Perhaps reflecting the anxiety of the day, the doom just happens to randomly affect the main character as an innocent civilian just trying to live a happy life.

Size Games -- ISM wasn't the first movie to play photographic games with relative sizes. Devil Doll ('36) and Dr. Cyclops ('40) featured 'shrunken' humans as an effect. Several low-budget dinosaur movies featured ordinary lizards and alligators dressed up as dinosaurs, and filmed to suggest great size. Jack Arnold's own Tarantula used photography of an ordinary spider superimposed to appear gigantic. Here, Jack Arnold shots the opposite, but with greater effect.

Honey I Shrunk The... -- Shrunken people movies have become kitsch by the time Honey I Shrunk the Kids came along in 1989. It has been done so many times. ISM was the memorable start of this trend. In 1957 it was fascinating, especially as Matheson's screenplay turned it into one man's struggle, not just for survival, but an inner struggle for meaning and worth. Here, the shrinking was the prime motivator of the plot rather than a side gimmick to another story.

Man Alone -- ISM is not simply about the novelty of being very small among 'huge' everyday objects. Richard Matheson (who wrote the novel "I Am Legend" in 1954) continues the theme of one man, cut off from the world he knew, having to cope with a terrible new world...alone. Much of ISM touches on this theme. Scott loses his regular happy life. He becomes estranged from his wife and brother, even the family pet becomes a terrible antagonist. He seeks love anew but even becomes estranged from that. In his own basement, he's a castaway, scraping to survive, all on his own.

Symbolic End -- Scott's old world, his job, his life with Louise, comes to a symbolic end when Louise, thinking he's dead, is moving out of the house. Scott is being swept along the basement floor by the flood from the broken water heater. He's shouting to be heard, but to no avail. She and Charlie leave up the stairs he cannot climb. LImp and almost lifeless, Scott clings to a wooden pencil floating by. All the water finally drains down a floor drain, symbolic of his hopes and former world. He lays like a shipwrecked castaway on the drain. His former life wrecked and lost, he awakens on the 'shore' of his barren new life.

Symbolic Evil -- The spider in the basement (actually a tarantula for the movie) is more than just an icky antagonist. Scott, narrating, explains. "My enemy seemed immortal. More than just a spider, it was every unknown terror in the world. Every fear fused into one hideous night-black horror." The spider symbolized all of Scott's fears as he faced his shrinking away. He fought and won, releasing him to come to grips with his fate.

Fate -- At the end of the movie, Scott, is now free and outside in the jungle of a back yard, seeing the moon and stars for the first time in days. He reflects on his fate and the universe. He's no longer afraid or even angry. Looking skyward he says, "The universe, 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, is 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."
This is a pretty weighty message for a sci-fi film.

Bottom line? Watching ISM is a must for a sci-fi fan, and well worth watching just as a movie. There's a lot of thought-provoking 'meat' to it if you're paying attention to the plot and the writing and not on how polished (or not) the special effects are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But how do you explain his wife's name continually changing between Louse and Louise?

His frustration with her, perhaps?