Somehow, The Incredible Shrinking Man rises above typical Cold War paranoia to become a highly effective drama. Where many B movies of this era used radiation as an external threat, here Arnold inverts this to instead focus upon the effect of radiation on the self. Dirty irradiated commies are not here to destroy America: the everyday household becomes a threat, with household items redefined in their utility. What is crafted out of this is a gripping tale of survival, down to the most basic of human needs, in the same vain as 127 Hours (2010). The Doctor Who serial Planet of Giants (1964) and Ant-Man (2015) would follow with similar premises, yet The Incredibly Shrinking Man feels the most gripping.
Scott experiences numerous symptoms from his brief exposure to radiation: not only the physical attributes, but an increasing weakness. The first half of the film is considerably different to the second half, but it sets up an interesting attribute of our protagonist. The cis, straight, white man with a seemingly perfect home and a perfect wife begins to know what it feels like to be an outsider, facing the judging looks of strangers. With his disability, he is reduced to a circus freak, exemplified by the media and hounded by the press because of it, unable to live a normal life. Today, Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage may have relatively strong careers as actors, but in decades past, the best they could expect was Freaks (1932). He begins to experience isolation.
Some parts of the film have a silliness to them. Eventually living in a doll’s house, our protagonist’s struggle only reminds me of my own childhood. Playing with action figures, standing out as tiny amongst the giants of the real world – as if the two could ever blend together. The giant-sized props and the visual trickery is impressive, except for the scene in which Scott eats with his girlfriend, on a table of ridiculously sized chairs and salt shakers. When a cat almost kills him, I’m not gripped, I’m reminded of Kitten Kong.
With Scott providing a monologue as narration, recalling the events of the film, the viewer is tricked into believing he will survive. But we see his wife and brother drive off from the house; he is alone. One of the most striking ideas in Ant-Man was when Scott Lang was reduced down to the size of a particle, transported into the microverse. But this film is surprisingly nihilistic. In a chilling final scene, Scott looks through a window into the night sky, reflecting how every individual matters and his own mortality. What could be a preachy message about individuality and the idea that everyone is equal in the eyes of God (as are nature’s creatures) is much more heartbreaking. Scott doesn’t have a happy ending. Scott Lang was able to escape, meet eyes with Thomas the Tank Engine, and sit at the table with his family, alongside a giant pet ant. Here, Scott is forced to accept his mortality, knowing that he too will become a star alongside the night sky very soon.