French existential philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre had nothing at all to do with the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, but it's fun to imagine what he would have made of it. The film is remembered for its still-impressive special effects, but it is even more notable for being a science fiction film that not only addressed the anxieties of its time but steadfastly refused to pander to its audience. There's no last-minute "cure." Its protagonist doesn't wake up and discover it was all a dream. The movie takes its premise to a conclusion that is more philosophical than climactic.
Indeed, when one looks up the meaning of "existentialism," it sounds like a description of the movie: "A philosophical movement embracing the view that the suffering individual must create meaning in an unknowable, chaotic, and seemingly empty universe." In this case the suffering individual is Scott Carey (Grant Williams) who seems like a nice guy and loving husband, but whose life is about to go seriously off course. While on vacation with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), he's exposed to a mysterious mist that may be a pesticide. Several months later he is similarly exposed to some sort of radiation and the combination somehow causes him to start shrinking.
What's interesting about that opening scene is that it's the only time we get to see Scott and Louise as a "normal" couple. Their playfulness—
In Richard Matheson's script, based on his novel, Scott begins a losing battle in which he will be confronting every aspect of modern life. It starts when he realizes his clothes don't fit. He assumes either his wife or the dry cleaner have made a mistake. It's almost played as a joke, as if this was a suburban sitcom of the era, but Scott isn't laughing. It's a petty annoyance: the sleeves of his shirt are too long, the collar is too loose. However, it's the first sign that things are not working the way they're supposed to, challenging the conformity and stability he's taken for granted.
Scott does what people are supposed to do when something physical is wrong. He goes to see his physician, who assures him that people don't shrink and there has to be a rational explanation for what he's been experiencing. Of course there does. We turn to the men and women of science for reassurance. (When they don't reassure us in our beliefs, by talking about evolution or global warming, some people decide the problem is not with their beliefs but with the scientists.) Scott is momentarily ready to accept this explanation from his doctor, but he continues to shrink. Who is he going to believe, the expert or his own eyes? When Scott and Louise can no longer deny the obvious, they turn from the family doctor to the scientific experts in their lab coats who are now able to confirm what Scott already knows. See, science works. Now all he needs is the cure and his life can get back to normal.
However in this movie, that normalcy will occasionally be held out in front of Scott only to be snatched away from him again. Science has identified his problem but is unable to come up with an answer. He continues to shrink until, at three feet, his wife is now more like his mother. Where they once had an equal relationship, now her job is to shield him from the increasingly hostile outer world. In one scene they are so inundated by the media that Louise tries to get them an unlisted phone number. Apparently this is a task far beyond her capabilities because when the phone company gives her a runaround she feels she has no choice but to cancel the phone service and go on the waiting list for a new number. Scott is furious and tells her she should have insisted it was for him, since he is a "big man" now that the story of his shrinking has gotten out. His bitterness causes him to lash out at Louise, but it is really his frustration at his own impotence. He shouldn't have to rely on her ineffective protection. One can imagine how emasculating this must have seemed in this pre-feminist time. It's one thing to negotiate getting a beer. It's another for him to be physically inferior to and dependent upon Louise.
If his home is no longer his castle, Scott finds that science has also failed him. They come up with a "cure"—
Feeling hopeless, Scott heads out from his home to see if there's something in the outside world that will help ease his pain. In a bar near a carnival, he meets a woman who is a midget. She recognizes him and backs off for fear of intruding, but he's starving for human contact. If Louise has turned into a mother figure, this woman puts him back on an equal footing. Suddenly he's not alone. For a brief while he has someone to talk to and share the burden with who can truly understand what it's like to see the world as he does. These moments allow the "normal" Scott to come back. In a different story he might leave his wife and start over again with this new woman. However, that is not to be. After this agonizingly brief respite, he starts shrinking again. When he realizes he is now smaller than her, he is humiliated and runs off. In short order he will find himself stripped of all the vestiges of his former life.
We next see him as he is forced to live in a dollhouse. He is now so small there is no way he could deal with normal chairs or beds. In one of the film's big scenes, he is attacked by the family cat. Scott is no longer the owner—
The final portion of the film is his life in the cellar. Having lost everything else, he is now stripped of the veneer of civilization. His existence is reduced to finding food, water and shelter and avoiding being consumed by something higher up the food chain, in this case a spider. It is a primitive existence but one he is ready to master, even if he has regressed to the prehistoric life of a hunter/gatherer. By film's end, his situation is hopeless. His wife is gone, assuming him dead, and he is so tiny that he can't possibly get the attention of any other person, much less interact with them. Worse, he's continuing to shrink. It is a horrible fate. Will he soon find himself fending off complex molecules? The film ends here and, even more incredibly, it ends on a hopeful note. Scott, who had earlier been seen writing an account of his misadventure, continues to narrate his story and finds, in the end, he isn't alone after all. Rejecting the existentialism that has permeated the rest of the story, Scott gets religion, embracing the notion that God takes notice of all things great and small, and that applies to him as well, no matter how small he may get. After all, what are we full-size humans in comparison to the galaxy or the universe? It is on this note that the film ends.
The movie was a success at the box office and Matheson was commissioned to write a sequel entitled "The Fantastic Little Girl," in which Louise starts to shrink, but it was never made. (It was published in his book Unrealized Dreams in 2005.) In the years since, the premise has been revisited in a number of films, but almost always as a comedy, from The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) to Innerspace (1987) to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). It was the chance to play with special effects, of having normal things look gigantic next to the miniature characters, that seemed to attract the filmmakers. It's no surprise that an announced remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man is to star Eddie Murphy in what will be, no doubt, another comedy. The rare exception to this was Fantastic Voyage (1966), where the miniaturization was part of a thriller plot taking place inside the body of someone needing delicate surgery.
The Incredible Shrinking Man takes its science fiction straight up and serious, ready to tackle some heavy issues. It's the rare film of any sort that confronts the issue of "what is the meaning of life?" Yet this one wants to take away every convention and support of civilization and still find hope. The contrast with a nihilistic movie like the recent The Road is stark. The Road posits a doomed world of hopelessness. Some people may mistake that bleakness for profundity, but when asked if there's any positive message at all, its defenders would have the characters unwittingly quote Monty Python and say, "I'm not dead yet." By contrast, The Incredible Shrinking Man is closer to the Biblical book of Job in arguing that just because you don't know why you are suffering doesn't indicate that there is no meaning in the universe. Even if you only have a glimmer of the larger picture, a God who sees the whole thing takes notice of you as well.
That's all well and good for people of faith, but what about the non-believers? Is the film to be dismissed as an exercise in existentialism that ultimately falls short and sells out? Perhaps not. The argument the film is making in the end is that Scott's life has meaning and significance no matter how small he gets. It's simply that he's alive. He has a role to play in the universe, even if he's not quite sure what it is. To paraphrase another philosopher, René Descartes, "I think, therefore I matter."
However you come out, what can't be denied is that science fiction films at their best give us something to think about beyond the thrills and effects. It's why more than half a century after its release, The Incredible Shrinking Man is worth viewing and talking about, while less than a year after its release, the top grossing US movie of 2009—
POSTSCRIPT: The Library of Congress apparently agrees. At the end of 2009, The Incredible Shrinking Man was one of twenty-five films selected for preservation as part of America's film heritage.