When Science and Philosophy Both Go Awry – The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

*** SPOILER WARNING*** This is one of those movies that I really can’t write about it the way that I want to without giving away/talking about the ending, so if you haven’t seen it, or plan to soon, you might want to skip this one and come back to it afterwards. ***END WARNING***

Let's get small.
Let’s get small.

In talking about the 1957 version of The Incredible Shrinking Man, which I recently had a chance to give a big-screen revisit thanks to its inclusion as part of Universal’s 100 Anniversary re-release celebration, Richard Matheson, who not only wrote the novel that it’s based on but adapted (along with Richard Alan Simmons) the novel for the screen, has said “My original story was a metaphor for how man’s place in the world was diminishing. That still holds today, where all these advancements that are going to save us will be our undoing.” Perhaps that explains the reasoning behind the seemingly somewhat out of nowhere soliloquy at the end of the movie, but it also points out why, in the end, that last bit of voice-over just didn’t work for me.

Now, when I say that the last bit of monologue is “somewhat out of nowhere”, I don’t mean that it is unprecedented through the rest of the film. As a matter of fact, the entire thing has been narrated by our protagonist, Scott Carey (well portrayed by Grant Williams), but at the same time, it just feels more than a bit wrong and out of character for the arc that Carey has been through in the film. So much so that at first I wondered if perhaps it was a studio-dictated tack-on made to satisfy some sort of audience driven dictate. Apparently not.

So if this really is the ending that Matheson wrote for the story (and I admit here that I haven’t read the book, so I’m only going by what is presented on the screen, but I have no reason to doubt that it ends dissimilarly) I suppose it will be beneficial to take a look at that arc and see what insights we can glean from it.

Sometimes the world just seems too big.
Sometimes the world just seems too big.

When we first meet Carey he seems to be a fairly typical 1950s upper middle class suburbanite on vacation with his wife Louise (played by Randy Stuart as a character who is not only sympathetic to her husband’s plight but deserving of sympathy herself as she refuses to give up on him or to give up hope that there will be a change in his fate until circumstances finally dictate that she must). The Careys have rented a small yacht for the day and are relaxing in the sun when Scott sends his wife below deck to get them each a beer. It is only this task that keeps Louise from also becoming irradiated by a mist that envelopes the boat then quickly sweeps on past. (It’s worth noting here that even if Louise had been caught in the mist it’s unlikely that she too would have begun shrinking, as the script is careful to point out that it is not just the mist, but an accidental exposure to an experimental insecticide that causes Carey’s unique predicament, thus also explaining why there is not a rash of shrinking people who got caught by the same mist. What might have happened to Louise if she too had been exposed? That is left to the viewer’s imagination.)

This is the internet, right? Then here's your obligatory "cute kitty" picture.
This is the internet, right? Then here’s your obligatory “cute kitty” picture.

Anyway, from this point on, as the title implies, Carey begins to shrink. At first, the effect is minor, causing him to question whether perhaps he is simply imagining things, but eventually it becomes undeniable. Despite everything that science says is impossible, Carey is definitely becoming smaller. He is, of course, run through a battery of tests and the scientists working on his case search feverishly for an antidote. And, for awhile there is hope – there comes a point where it seems as though even though they have been unable to reverse Carey’s shrinking so that he begins to get bigger again, they at least stabilize it so that he’s not getting any smaller. This glimmer of hope proves to be only temporary, however, and it’s not long before the shrinking resumes and we finally reach the point we’ve been waiting for the entire movie: namely, Carey has shrunk to the point where he has begun living in a doll house.

Okay, so this is where we finally get to the ultimate man versus nature showdown, in a number of different scenarios, and where the narrative really pays off. We get some truly incredible set pieces and special effect work that still really pays off pretty darn well. Sure, some of the 1950’s style rear projection and matte work is far from seamless, and could pull the viewer out of the movie, but if you’re willing to make allowances for that and let the movie absorb you, well… I’ll put it like this: in the crowd I was watching this with there were a couple of scenes that still drew strong reactions from the audience, and some that really were still edge of your seat moments.

shrunk2So where does the movie break down? Well, like I said at the top, it’s literally at the very end of the movie. Carey has finally managed to set up a base in the cellar of his house. He has managed to secure food, shelter, makeshift clothing, and has overcome the last real threat to his life at the moment, a spider which is now actually larger than he is. The question, of course, at this point, is what now? Is the movie going to conclude with some kind of miraculous recovery at the last moment that will bring him back to normal and allow him to reunite with his wife? No, and this is a decision that I do applaud, it doesn’t take that easy way out.Is it going to end on a somewhat ambiguous note with him facing and uncertain future, either there in the cellar with his newly established base camp as he goes off and begins to explore more about this brave new world that surrounds him? Well, for a moment it certainly seems that way as he finds a grate that exits out into the yard and he looks at the forest of grass and flowers that awaits him and would prove the perfect set-up for what today would be the inevitable sequel. Certainly, I must admit that’s the way I expected it to go, and even if we never got the sequel, as much as I hate to say it I think would have been my preferred ending.

But no. Instead, well, as I noted at the start, Matheson chooses to go philosophical at the end. I could describe the scene to you, but instead, I’ll just let you see how it plays out. This clip picks up just as Carey is awakening after collapsing from exhaustion from his fight with the spider.

And yeah. That’s it. Fini. The thing is, it’s not that its particularly a bad ending, just that it seems SO out of nowhere. The entire movie has been about Carey struggling to prove to himself and to the world that despite his shrinking stature he is still a man. And then at the very end, just as it seems that he has proven the point, he has completed that struggle and can move on to explore what being a man at that size really means, he suddenly realizes that his fate is not to be a man at all but to become one with the infinite? Up to this point Carey hasn’t shown any interest at all in looking towards the heavens or “the answer to the riddle of the infinite.” And perhaps if Carey, Dr. Frankenstein-like, had somehow been initially instrumental in creating the fate that befell him, then that line about “I had presumed upon nature.” would make some contextual sense, but the truth is, he was simply a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  No presuming occurred.

“To God, there is no zero. I still exist!” Umm… nope, Scott, sorry. See those words that came up as soon as you could get that declaration past your lips? “The End.” Whether you (or I, for that matter) like it or not, your story is over. Just as your soliloquy comes abruptly from nowhere, so does that final cut.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s just the abruptness of it all, but in the end, after all of Carey’s struggles, and our sympathetic ride-along with him, the conclusion really does leave one with a feeling of “Really? That’s where we’ve been going?”

Which Is a shame, because up until that point the ride had been so good.

One thought on “When Science and Philosophy Both Go Awry – The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

  1. “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is a very interesting film. Try pairing that with “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” for the double feature. I like this movie, and I just wish that some production studio today would have remakes or reimaginings of more sci fi films from the 50s and 60s. “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die”, “Tarantula”, “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”, “Creature From the Black Lagoon” etc. I think the smaller ones would be more interesting to shoot, maybe put them back into the public’s eye. Michael I still say Plan 9 would be a success if remade.

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