Thursday, December 6, 2007

Review - The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man
1958 Hugo Winner for Outstanding Movie

The first time the fans at Worldcon decided to honor a film they may have chosen the wrong year to do it. The science fiction films of 1957 have a few greats in them but the ones in 1956 were spectacular (which include Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a decent version of 1984, for the special effects fans Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the US release of The Quatermass Xperiment, and Godzilla). Perhaps it was the quality of the films in 1956 that drove them to add films to the Hugos. The crop of 1957 is much more thin (and I should say that when I was double checking the science fiction films released that year I was shocked that I had seen the majority of them), but there was the second Quartermass film and 20 Million Miles to Earth. They chose a real classic for that first film Hugo.

Unlike most movies of the 1950's it is not radiation that causes our title figure to begin shrinking; it's a combination of radiation and insecticides. After being exposed Scott Carey gradually begins to shrink and as he does his relationship with his wife becomes strained, he becomes a media phenomena, and eventually the contents of his house become deadly hazards.

In a sense it's one of the standard movie science fiction plots of the fifties and sixties. Man exposed to science starts changing while everyone around him reacts in horror. This time it really worked for two reasons. First, while I wouldn't call the performances brilliant they were decent. Grant Williams as Scott really has to carry the movie, especially the second half where all of the other actors are effectively gone. Second, Jack Arnold's direction is very impressive. Arnold used a lot of exotic point-of-view shots to get into Scott's head, some distinctive camera angles to emphasize the scale, and some wonderfully integrated special effects shots.

There are four ways that they showed the shrunken Scott Carey through special effects. The first, and simplest, is just oversized props and sets. This was used quite a bit when Scott is alone on screen and some of it looks really nice but it feels a bit barren just because they didn't have as many oversized props as they could have. The second is the forced perspective shot. This was only used toward the beginning where slight changes were necessary but the pacing of those slow changes made it a very effective tool. Then there was the rear projection which varied from looking very smooth to being garishly wrong. Finally there were the matted shots, a technique that was far from perfected in 1957 and these look particularly bad. Still I found that that the effects worked well overall with the practical effects for the foreground and the projection in the background.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is at its heart an adventure film though the bulk of the adventure takes place in just two rooms of a house. I thought the movie lost something when Scott becomes separated and trapped in the basement for the last half of the film since he effectively became the only person in the movie from then on. Still this adventure portion is very good.

For a concept that has been worked over quite a bit in popular culture The Incredible Shrinking Man featured quite a bit that was very distinctive. Sure there's the encounters with the house cat and spider have been copied over and over again but they are done well. I know for some people watching black and white movies with old special effects isn't something they can do but I found The Incredible Shrinking Man well worth watching.