Over the years there have been many films that have used miniaturisation as a plot device: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Innerspace (1987), Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989), and Ant-Man (2015). With Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing, we tread some familiar ground, but with a wider perspective.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is an occupational therapist for a meat packing and distribution company, ‘Omaha Steaks’, who has been in the job a long time. After many years looking after his mother, Paul continues to live in the same house, married to his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) as they struggle through their mundane life. In the meantime, Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) who invented ‘downsizing’ technology, which shrinks a person down to a fraction of their usual size, has begun marketing this technology to the general public. His ultimate goal is to control overpopulation and climate change, whereby everyone lives in small bio-domes and consumes far fewer resources. Enticed by the prospect of being able to step out of his humdrum life due to his assets of $150,000 being worth $12 million in the miniature world, Paul convinces Audrey that they should be ‘downsized’ and move into ‘Leisureland’. Once in his new surroundings though, Paul discovers many things aren’t as he expected.
Compared to many of the aforementioned films, Downsizing is much more of a discourse about the environment, consumerism, and our place in the world. There is much in here about human nature and how we are obsessed with possessing ‘things’ and social status, which continues to be a factor in the miniature world. Paul is confronted by these facts as he stumbles across disadvantaged people, greed, corruption and opportunistic businessmen (in the form of Christoph Waltz’s Dusan), as his idealistic notions of Leisureland are dismantled.
He also finds himself on something of a personal journey, as this small replica of the large world hasn’t shrunk his inner failings and issues, which remain full sized. If the first half of the film is an examination of his outer world, and situation, confronting his inner demons becomes the focus of much of the second half of the film.
It is in the second half of the film, in Leisureland, where much of the heart can be found, with Ngoc Lan Tran (the fantastic Hong Chau), a disabled Vietnamese activist who was downsized against her will, providing much of the guidance in Pauls personal reflection. During this section of the film, we have moved off from the sci-fi concept and more into personal dynamics, which in some regards leaves some interesting questions unanswered.
For me, there were some intriguing lines that the film could have gone down, and it does occasionally feel that an opportunity has been missed. You are also required to suspend a lot of disbelief in the science, which should go without saying, but I did still find myself occasionally thinking about how certain things were possible, and pulling it apart.
However picky I was about this world, it was rendered exceptionally well and visually Downsizing is a treat. It looks great (kudos to Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael) and the set/art direction is exceptional, with nice touches throughout.
While it’s not perfect, and has its flaws, Downsizing is an enjoyable and thought provoking film. Yes, Kristen Wiig isn’t in it enough, and there are missed story avenues, but Matt Damon is solid while being backed by strong performances from Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier. There are also enough good jokes and well-made satirical points to keep it rolling along, and although you do wish it could have had a bit more bite in certain areas, it does hang together quite nicely.
Downsizing comes out in cinemas on December 22nd.