When a Movie Merges with a Metaphysical Message

COMMENTARY: As a science fiction movie from 1957 tells us, echoing the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, size does not determine the nature of a being.

Promotional art for 'The Incredible Shrinking Man.'
Promotional art for 'The Incredible Shrinking Man.' (photo: Reynold Brown /Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Movies are largely for entertainment. Every once in a while, however, one comes along that has an important message.

 The 1957 science fiction film, The Incredible Shrinking Man is an example. Life as we know it, develops and grows. There are stages to life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age. No one questions whether or not a personal loses his identity as a human being when he undergoes any one of these transitions.

The Incredible Shrinking Man, which has been selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, reverses the process. Scott Carey, played by Grant Williams, passes through a strange radioactive mist while boating. There is no discernible immediate effect, but in time, he slowly begins to shrink. His wife notices that his clothes are inexplicably too large for him. His wedding ring slides off his finger. He resides in a doll house until it is too small for him, tussles with the house cat, and engages in mortal combat with a spider. His shrinking process is irreversible and relentless.

Carey lives backwards, so to speak, the movie viewer has no difficulty in recognizing that despite this process of miniaturization the protagonist retains his identity as a human being. There is no point at which he loses it. 

At the end of the movie, Carey climbs on a basement windowsill and looks out at a starry night, “God’s silver tapestry — spread across the night.” He wonders whether someone as small as he is, can still be a human being. Existential screenwriter Richard Matheson provides the movie’s closing words: 

“So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle. 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!”

For St. Thomas Aquinas, existence is the “perfection of perfections.” It is infinitely distanced from nothingness. But Aquinas states that with regard to human beings, they not only have “being” but also “life.” Along with the gift of “being,” they are also endowed with “life.” Being and life are co-existent. Scott Carey can continue getting smaller without ever losing either his humanity or his life. He is not a “zero” and therefore still exists as a living being.

The human zygote, which is formed by the integration of 23 chromosomes from the father and 23 chromosomes from the mother, is the beginning of a living human being. From that humble beginning it continues to grow. The metaphysical message that the movie provides is that it is easier, although through the lens of science fiction, to grasp the continuity of the human being when seen backwards through the process of shrinking, that it is to grasp that same continuity when seen forward through the process of growing. It is stating that size does not determine the nature of a being. 

In his book, The Moral Question of Abortion, Stephen Schwarz makes the comment that size is of no moral significance to the nature of a human being. 

“The larger person,” he writes, “isn’t any more a person, or any more precious, than the smaller. A small new born baby is just as precious as an older child, or an adult. The child in the womb is simply a still smaller child”. Moving forward, the zygote, though very small, is the being that continues to grow and when it reaches a certain size, is universally recognized as a human being. However, given our scientific knowledge of the nature of the zygote, we should understand that the zygote is simply the first stage of a human being that will continue to grow through various stages of development.

In Donum Vitae, we read the following: 

“Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception, and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.”

Alberto Caturelli is the director of the Argentine Catholic School of Philosophy in Cordoba. In his essay “Identity and Status of the Human Embryo from the Perspective of Metaphysics,” he concludes, “The embryo responds with an internal logic of life which comes from the instant in which eternity enters time. Instantaneous fertilization is the coincidence of the supreme act of conjugal love with the eternal act of divine love. The carnal gift of the spouses is inseparable from human generation. Therefore, it must be clearly maintained that children come, immediately, from the maternal womb; they come mediately and absolutely, from the ‘womb’ of God’s love.”

What is credible about The Incredible Shrinking Man is that existence does not depend on size. No matter how small something is, it stands outside of nothingness. Therefore, it has meaning. The same can be said of the human zygote.

To God there is no “zero.” Indeed, in the human zygote there is a plenitude of information that will direct the development of the human being from its starting point to its ultimate demise presided over by the Hand of God.