What is Downsizing?
In the near-future, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to take advantage of a new technology that reduces people in size, to just five inches tall. Their reasons for ‘downsizing’? To help the environment, and to live like millionaires. But they soon discover that being small isn’t the dream they’d been sold, and that the world’s problems don’t disappear just because you are tiny.
Making the Shift to Sci-Fi
Writer-director Alexander Payne isn’t known for high-concept genre pictures. Via films like Election, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, he’s dealt with big themes, but on a small scale, the drama driven by sharp dialogue and fine performances rather than special effects and technical wizardry.
With Downsizing, he changes things up in spectacular fashion, crafting a biting social satire, and setting it in the midst of a visually arresting science-fiction flick. It’s a bold, brave shift for he and writing partner Jim Taylor, and while it’s a wildly successful experiment during the film’s first half, it fares less well in the home stretch, with Downsizing losing focus, becoming preachy, and collapsing under the weight of its own ambitions.
The set-up is a fun one, kicking off in Norway where scientists reveal that they have found a way to help mankind deal with crises like overpopulation, climate change, housing and hunger head-on. And that’s by reducing the size of those who choose to sign up for their programme to around five inches, and having them live in a village just a few metres long and wide.
Cut to five years later and 36 brave volunteers are participating in the ‘Fantastic Voyage’ by being reduced and starting the first self-sustaining community of the small. Where they live like kings, and the waste produced in a year fills just one garbage bag.
Jump forward a further 10 years, and Downsizing has pretty much transformed society, with lots taking the plunge to help the environment. But also because they can then live in mansions and buy diamonds. All of which appeals to occupational therapist Paul, who lives in a modest house with his wife, and has only just paid off his student loan. With life going nowhere, Paul uses downsizing as an opportunity to “change, hit the reset button, start all over.”
Wildly Erratic Tone
And so the couple decide to get rich by going small. Up until this point the film is a wicked social satire, with speeches, adverts and marketing campaigns selling a dream, while avoiding confronting the potential repercussions of that dream. The odd aside or dissenting voice asks questions about human rights, immigration and terrorism, and hints that downsizing might be too good to be true, but it’s subtly done.
The reduction itself is then brilliantly brought to life, the irreversible process playing out like a scene from a horror film as hair and fillings are removed and you’re put into a sleep from which there’s a chance that you won’t return.
Then we’re in small-town. And that’s where proceedings take a turn for the worse.
A major plot development quickly turns the sharp comedy into drama verging on tragedy, and from here-on-in the film veers all over the place, the tone wildly erratic, the narrative feeling laboured; the many messages coming across as confused and patronising.
We won’t spoil the twists and turn that precipitate the messy second half. But they revolve around a couple of actors who deliver terrific performances, with Christoph Waltz a European playboy who embraces the more hedonistic side of downsizing, and Hong Chau a disabled Vietnamese refugee who represents its darker elements.
They steal the film from Matt Damon, whose Paul is such a dull everyman that it’s hard to really care about his journey. Particularly in the film’s final few scenes, when it feels less like we are watching his story, and more like we are being lectured about environmental issues.
Is Downsizing Good?
Downsizing is a frustrating viewing experience. It’s starts out strong, the early scenes disconcertingly plausible, and beautifully observed. The film focusses on real-life problems that the world is facing today, yet manages to package them in a light and fluffy confection that’s filled with clever jokes and thought-provoking concepts.
But when we’re in Downsizing‘s literal microcosm of society, and quickly realise that nothing much has changed in terms of class, race and equality, the film feels like it doesn’t know where to go.
The subtlety of those early scenes gives way to Payne and Taylor getting on their soapbox. And what at first felt bright, vibrant and wholly unique, turns into something of a slog; a film filled with great moments and ideas, too many of which go to waste.
Downsizing screened at Fantastic Fest and will be released in the U.S. in December and the U.K. in January.