Kicking off a project I’ve been meaning to do for a few months now, I sat down last night to watch the very first winner of the “Dramatic Presentation” Hugo – The Incredible Shrinking Man.
1958 was the debut year for this category (which, until 2002, included television episodes AND movies). It was also the last year that winners were chosen by a panel instead of through voting by the WorldCon members. Something to keep in mind is that all Hugos are awarded for books or media released in 1957.
Notable other movies released in 1957 were The Bridge on the River Kwai (which won the Oscar that year), 12 Angry Men (a personal favorite), Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Amazing Colossal Man, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and Jailhouse Rock. It was the birth of the space age thanks to the launch of Sputnik, and atomic fear was one of the defining emotions of the era (which kicked off the Atomic Era of horror movies).
That being said, The Incredible Shrinking Man is very much a product of its time. Protagonist Scott Carey is out boating with his wife one day and runs into a radioactive cloud (which leaves him inexplicably covered in glitter). Combined with the effects of a brief exposure to pesticide, the man begins shrinking, which we understand by way of medical hand-waving (ah, medical hand-waving, how I love thee). What ensues is not only the diminishment of his size relative to the world around him, but also his role in it. He loses his job, his wife, his privacy and very nearly his life as things that were once trivial become insurmountable challenges.
A telling line from the movie (delivered to his wife in a moment of existential despair):
You married Scott Carey. He has a size, and a shape, and a way of thinking.
This very much sums up how Scott feels about the whole thing – How could he possibly remain the same person when something like this is happening to him?
After being chased into the basement by his former pet cat, he is trapped because he is too smal to climb the stairs. Alone and hungry, he refuses to accept his fate, and instead he will take control over what little of the world he has left to hold dominion over. As such, he must fight and destroy the massive spider that holds court over his only source of food – a discarded piece of cake.
It’s a fine movie for the era, and as someone who has a deep love of old school SF movies, this one took a look at the pulpy movies characteristic of the era and added a dash of the metaphysical (as evidenced in the soliloquy that closes the movie, and very likely was the thing to secure the Hugo for it):
I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, 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 in 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!
Even though it is physically impossible (and I use “physically” in the literal sense here) to be shrunk down to become the size of an atom, the thought of it happening is soberingly terrifying. What would you be thinking when you’re too small for even the electrostatic forces of the matter around you to hold you up and you slip into the infinity between? You’re left with the only thing you had to being with: your being. And though you are too small to have any effect on the trajectory of anything else, you still have your mind. And to Scott at the end, that has to be enough.
The movie was based on the novel by (a personal fav) Richard Matheson. Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the movie (there’s a cool article on Tor about this). Contemplative, uncomfortable, and hopeless are three words I would use to describe this movie. They’re three things I deeply enjoy in fiction, and Matheson is a master of these.
As for a rating, I would give this a 8. While it can’t compete with many of the sci-fi/horror movies I hold near and dear in my heart, for the era (and even a lot of straight up horror movies made since), it’s a breath of fresh air.
Up next: 1959 – where no winner was chosen between The Fly, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Dracula.