The Incredible Shrinking Movies

With Ant-Man out now, we look at a dozen other films where less is often more.

Joe Dante’s Innerspace (1987)

In addition to being a superhero origin story, a heist caper and a comedy, Ant-Man is part of that category of movies that deals with what happens when people shrink. The “shrinking person” genre got its start in the early ‘30s, with nearly each decade since then offering up its own variation on the theme. Some have been frightening, some humorous and others just plain ludicrous — but all tap into that deep-seated fear of being diminished in a world that looms too large around us.

Here are 12 movies that cover all the bases of the “shrinking person” canon, from the silly to the wondrous to the majestic. Size does matter in all these pictures — but not in the way you think.

12. The Wild, Wild Planet (1965)

Italian director Antonio Margheriti was best known for his Gothic horror movies but delved into sci-fi with four quickies all set around a space station called Gamma One. This, the first and probably best known of the quartet, is a blast of surreal, psychedelic nuttiness that involves a mad scientist’s plot to kidnap human beings for experimentation by deploying weird, bald mutants wearing long, dark coats — the better to hide their four arms — to miniaturize the victims and transport them in suitcases.

The scientist’s ultimate goal is to create a master race, although it’s unclear how downsizing folks helps that cause. Those bald guys and the tiny people slotted into suitcases unnerved me a great deal as a kid — nowadays the movie is kind of tedious but still moderately entertaining schlock.

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11. Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) takes a job as secretary for the kindly-seeming dollmaker Mr. Franz (John Hoyt), unaware that her new boss is so afraid of being alone that he shrinks certain people down to one-sixth their size and keeps them around as “friends.” Filmmaker Bert I. Gordon went from one extreme (The Amazing Colossal Man) to the other with this C-lister, which — like a lot of Gordon’s movies — has its entertainment value even at its silliest.

Then again, the premise of a grown man who likes to collect and play with dolls is pretty far-fetched even for — oh wait.

10. Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves! (1997)

This second sequel to the original Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) went direct-to-video and only intermittently captures the charm of the first movie. This time around, Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis, the only returning original cast member) shrinks himself, his long-suffering wife and another couple, forcing them to navigate the house while the kids throw a party.

A battle with a cockroach and the two women making friends with a spider then using it for a ride up to a tabletop are two of the more imaginative sequences, but in the end we can’t blame Moranis for retiring from acting after doing this gig.

9. Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton seems to have a thing for shrinking people: he used it in Beetlejuice (1987) and of course in the “TV Room” sequence in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Can’t say we enjoy Burton’s hugely successful but terribly inert and tone-deaf retelling of this Lewis Carroll classic, but of all the many versions, this one features the best visuals of Alice shrinking (and sprouting back up again) as she journeys into what the film calls “Underland.”

The sequence is actually one of the few moments of rare delight in this otherwise turgid and generic fantasy film. For our money, the best version of the story is still Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation, which took liberties with the story but captured the mood and the spirit.

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8. The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)

A comedic riff on the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, this movie also marked — for better or worse — the directorial debut of Joel Schumacher. He and star Lily Tomlin do their best with the material, and in Tomlin’s case that goes a long way — her character goes through some of the same paces as the original’s Scott Carey only from a much more humorous perspective.

The idea that Tomlin is shrinking from exposure to household products and food additives is a wonderfully satiric notion, but the script eventually twists that into a generic “world domination” subplot. The bottom line? This one has its small successes.

7. The Devil-Doll (1936):

Best known for his masterpieces Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932) — not to mention legendary silents like The Unholy Three (1925) and the lost London After Midnight (1927) — Tod Browning also scored with this minor gem. Lionel Barrymore is a banker, released from prison after serving 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit, who is taught a process to shrink people by his scientist cellmate and recruits tiny assassins to enact revenge on those who framed him.

The setpieces involving the small killers are effective, while Barrymore’s disguising himself as an old woman who sells dolls adds another layer of surreal weirdness to the goings-on.

6. Dr. Cyclops (1940)

Director Ernest B. Schoedsack and producer Merian C. Cooper — the same team responsible for the groundbreaking King Kong seven years earlier — created another classic with this, the first science fiction film made in Hollywood to be shot in color. The movie follows the plight of a group of scientists who are shrunken in an atomic generator by the insane Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) and must fight their way out of his jungle lair.

The effects are outstanding for the time and earned the film an Academy Award nomination. In an era known for a glut of interchangeable mad scientists, Dr. Cyclops — pun fully intended — stands tall.

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5. Innerspace (1987)

Genre homage master Joe Dante paid tribute to several seminal “shrinking” films — most notably Fantastic Voyage — with this sci-fi comedy, which stars Dennis Quaid as a test pilot whose one-man microscopic ship is accidentally injected into the body of a grocery clerk (Martin Short) by scientists on the run from industrial spies. Dante throws in-joke aplenty into the mix, along with a lot of striking visual effects, while Quaid and Short make a good comedy team.

A bit too busy and manic, Innerspace nevertheless has that classic ‘80s Amblin Entertainment feel that everyone seems to wish we had back these days.

4. Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

This one is a delight. Directed by Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and scripted by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) and others, the movie stars Rick Moranis as scientist Wayne Szalinski, whose matter-shrinking machine accidentally miniaturizes his kids and their friends — who are all promptly and accidentally thrown in the trash by Wayne. The kids must make their way to the house across a backyard that might as well be an alien world.

Funny, charming and thoroughly engaging as a family-oriented sci-fi ride, the movie also features exceptional special effects and a sense of wonder that’s hard to shake.

3. Ant-Man (2015)

We’re going to put Ant-Man right near the top, not just for its excellent visual effects and stunning macrophotography, but also because it uses its sci-fi concept so well in service of its emotionally resonant story of two fathers who want desperately to reconnect with and protect their daughters. Ant-Man also touches on the truly mind-bending and existentialist with the “quantum realm” sequence late in the movie, which features Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) decreasing to sub-atomic size and falling through an utterly alien dimension that is both eerie and beautiful — a scene unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Did we mention it’s also a heist film and a superhero origin story?

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2. Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Sci-fi films that achieve a true sense of wonder are few and far between, but this is one of them. When a scientist who is defecting from behind the Iron Curtain is sent into a coma in an assassination attempt, a medical team is miniaturized and injected into his bloodstream in a small ship in order to travel to his brain and destroy the blood clot threatening his life. The visualization of the body’s interior leads to one imaginative and often brilliant scene after another, and director Richard Fleischer keeps the narrative at a pulse-pounding clip.

The characterizations and acting may not be the greatest (not that you notice when its Raquel Welch making her film debut) and the plot has some very large holes in it, but this is still one of the best of its type, and great ‘60s sci-fi to boot.

1. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) pass through a mysterious cloud while on their boat, which leads Carey to begin steadily shrinking in size until he loses everything — his job, his wife, his friends, his home, the life he led and all ties to his previous existence. And yet he still continues to shrink toward an unforeseeable future. Directed by Jack Arnold from a screenplay by genre great Richard Matheson (who adapted his own novel), this is one of science fiction cinema’s undisputed masterworks — a thriller whose iconic imagery is matched by the shattering existential questions at its core.

Unforgettable scenes of Carey battling his own pet cat, traversing the treacherous landscape of his basement and fighting for his life against a spider rest easily alongside thematic issues of masculinity and power. And then there is that ending — one of the most haunting and profound in all of sci-fi. For a movie about a shrinking man, its ultimate implications are enormous.