Genre Pictures IV

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The Incredible Shrinking Man

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Books and covers. This film’s title might put you off. It sounds like one of those silly ’50’s horror movies. (Have we actually watched any of those silly horror movies? Them! sounds pretty dumb, doesn’t it? Turns out that it’s really, really good though.)

Well it is a horror movie, kind of. It has a justifiably famous sequence in which the protagonist has an extended battle with a giant spider. Estimable genre craftsman Jack Arnold directed, and extremely estimable genre superstar Richard Matheson wrote it.

But The Incredible Shrinking Man, like so many initially uninspiring movie prospects, actually has a whole bunch of really good things going for it.

It’s timely, and substantially so. As often with films of this period, the underlying subject is nuclear anxiety. This anxiety is elegantly addressed in indirect ways. You’ll lose sight of it, but it might still be staying in the pit of your stomach. In this way the film is also really instructively topical, or historical.

There’s a sci-fi/horror gimmick here, and it’s ably explored, elaborated, varied, stretched all the way out.  All that actually comes in two parts. The shrinking of our main character, as you might guess, involves all sorts of unexpected complications. The first thing to note and appreciate is how the designers and decorators responded to the challenge. The physical details of this production are just top notch. Kudos!

The script and staging are just as adept in their exploring and elaborating. Very intelligent. Very empathetic! Note the dignity, the gravity even with which the considers growing incompatibilities between two decent married people. If you want, this is impotence. Or same-sex attraction. Or just sad sundering. But though the shrinking may be a bit outlandish, most everything that follows is quite wise. We know this, but Arnold/Matheson’s film reminds us how searching and sensitive merest genre pictures can be.

Similarly, The Incredible Shrinking Man is very good about how your friends and neighbours struggle with your difficulties and traumas, even if you’re not shrinking down to nothing. It’s good on the media, on its exploitative tendencies, as well as the more positive or purposeful things that it also does. Films will do this better, later (sometimes!), but this one even takes a fair stab at seriously looking at the difficult and still very rich realities of small people’s lives.

Then, horror. Not just spiders, but your nice cat too. You’ll also think of nails differently, though I’m still not sure what to do with what I’ve learned in that area.

Finally, and maybe most impressively, The Incredible Shrinking Man concludes in the most wonderfully Kafka-esque way. Metamorphosis, I mean. A drastic event happens. Our normal narrative response, as with our real life challenges, is to find out the cause. And just as importantly, a solution to the problem. Kafka’s epochal novella (which is also quite funny) pretty perversely, quite wonderfully, keeps losing sight of all that bourgeois stuff. By the end the change not only seems to be permanent, but also complete. As far as you can tell the former Gregor Samsa is now fully an insect, without any recollection of or even desire toward his former state. (Cf. Arthur Clarke’s mind-blowing Childhood’s End.)

This film isn’t quite that drastic, but it really does fly in the face of convention. Linear narrative is full of complications, but it almost always wants to return to the status quo (though that is likely to be more heightened, or appreciated, or something like that). This one, through the journey of its protagonist, bravely turns its back on all that. It ends on the thrilling—optimistic!—brink of a microscopic existence. He’s taken his lumps, faced the reality, and increased in figurative stature, as a result. If he’s been shipwrecked, then like Robinson Crusoe or William and Elizabeth Robinson, he’s become resourceful, and wise. Now we’re no longer dealing with the faux or sub-science of a mere B-movie. They’re taking it on!

Just as much, more,The Incredible Shrinking Man is up to and intelligent about post-WWII existential issues. As in existence preceding essence, and a fundamental meaningless that only changes, that can and will change in the face of our conscientious engagement. Boy, by now this film is sounding like Hamlet! But with a giant spider …

A really good one, in other words.