Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Incredible Shrinking Man

I recently watched (for the second time, I think) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The screenplay is by Richard Matheson, the writer to whom we owe the novel upon which it is based, as well as I Am Legend (1954), Hell House (1971), and What Dreams May Come (1978). Amazingly, he also wrote the screenplays for that best of Poe adaptations, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), as well as two other Roger Corman productions, namely, the memorable but somewhat inferior House of Usher (1960), and the ridiculous but entertaining The Raven (1963); he wrote the famous Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"; the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"; The Legend of Hell House (1973), which I talked about earlier this year; the made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror (1975), whose little doll continues to pursue me through my worst nightmares; and numerous other things.

Anyway, The Incredible Shrinking Man. It's one profound movie. An ordinary man starts shrinking, more or less inexplicably, becoming a tiny bit smaller each day. He undergoes humiliation, alienation, and, finally, cosmic isolation. His resentment becomes tyrannical petulance, then terror, then utter loneliness. His white-collar insecurities gradually crumble before Pascal's fear of the eternal silence of the infinite spaces. In the last act, the basement-hell to which he finds himself consigned stretches before him like an alien landscape in which he must fight like an insect to survive. More so even than the protagonist of I Am Legend, he finds himself marooned in an inimical new universe. He triumphs over the spider, only to go on shrinking smaller, and smaller still.

But despair turns to acceptance and finally hope. The film ends in epiphany, as the protagonist wanders out through the grating, looking up at the stars, soliloquizing, as the viewer receives flashes of distant galaxies:
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!
Profound words, but merely quoting them fails to convey the feeling they give me when I watch the movie. It really brings tears to my eyes, because it captures so well what has tormented me all my life. That is, the terror of the senseless cosmos.

What people miss when they talk about how insignificant man is in the universe is the fact that man is also gigantic. The truth is, man hangs suspended between two extremes, the infinite and the infinitesimal, a fact that the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal, mentioned above, wrote about at some length:
Let man [...] contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things... 
Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature... What is a man in the Infinite? 
But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature's immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. [...] Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption. 
For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret, he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. [Pensées 72]
So you see, the universe is considerably more terrifying than your rather unimaginative New Atheist types generally realize. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a profound exploration of that terror, and a moving attempt to answer it. But it's also a gripping film apart from its philosophical implications, with wonderful sets and meticulous attention to detail in its depiction of the protagonist's rapidly growing world. And the battle with the giant spider toward the end is very cool.

Truly one of the great science fiction films of all time.

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