The notion of downsizing is both an environmental philosophy, creating a smaller footprint and generating less waste, as well as an economic manoeuvre to create more wealth in retirement. Alexander Payne’s new film, Downsizing, is a mainstream sci-fi satire about what would happen if people downsized both in terms of using less, but also and more importantly, if they shrunk down in size to about five inches. Think of the savings in space, real estate needs, food consumption, waste disposal and quality of life in Truman Show style luxury estates with simple netted security from predators such as insects and birds.
New Norwegian research facilitates this process, which is quick, efficient and communal – villages have emerged inhabited entirely by little people with a 200-year plan for global transitioning. But in the USA miniaturisation is sold by spruikers who would not be out of place flogging condos and wealth creation seminars. It seems to be a bit of a cult driven by social envy as people soon realise how much less money you need in a miniaturised world.
For Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) it is a solution to their debt crisis and their dream of owning a bigger, more luxurious home. The only problem with this solution to overcrowding is that it is irreversible. But to become small means that you become instantly rich.
Downsizing is sweet but as far as satire about little people it is underwhelming, with modest ideas and a timid approach to speculative fiction possibilities, considering such a compelling premise. The beauty of the film is that it allows the audience to dwell on the industrial dimensions of what it would be like to create a miniature world and manufacture small goods and luxury items. Clearly diamonds and cigars would be far cheaper if they were designed for people only 15 centimetres tall.
Given the history of films about shrinking people, from the classic masterpiece of shrinking hysteria The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) to the goofy Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1987) and to the more recent magical The Secret World of Arriety and the superhero action sci-fi adventure Ant-Man, the shrinking in Downsizing is largely without conflict, the drama underplayed, the outcomes dour and the interactions with the big world – which invariably are the core source of the drama – largely absent.
The film will attract audiences who want a safe and lightly whimsical approach to their science fiction. People who are conceptually experimenting with doing something positive for the environment while motivated by lifestyle choices of living an upmarket life based on the sale of oversized property. Some of these concepts continue Alexander Payne’s much-admired investigations of grumpy but good-natured, kooky middle-Americans going through periods of transition. So while this is science-fiction (of sorts) and with a large story world, it remains intimate and small-scale, not unlike the emotionally charged connections between families, friends, co-workers, schoolteachers and strangers seen in Nebraska, The Descendants,Sideways, About Schmidt, and his first significant film, Election.
Unlike those films, however, the character transformation is modest and the emotional connections are largely absent. The most emotionally satisfying moments are grabbed by Ngoc Lan (excellently performed by Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident shrunk as punishment by the government and who loses half her leg in escaping. Her selflessness and no-nonsense pragmatism make her the driving force of the film and generates the possibility for Matt Damon’s turgidly suburban timidity to be tested and transformed. She gives the film heart and meaningfulness in her brusque delivery that denies sentimentalism even in the face of death.
As a science fiction film, Downsizing sets up the what-if scenario and the best parts are the preparations for getting small – a sequence most often overlooked in the shrinking people genre. The details of the concept are that while all organic matter is reduced in size, not all augmentations will necessarily follow suit. So, a hip replacement means that the candidate is unsuitable for the procedure while dodgy operators in Mexico killed a man when they forgot to remove his dental fillings and his head exploded. The preparations are deliciously straight-faced from the full body shave down, the filling removal procedure, the enema (speculating why this was an important procedure is at the heart of contemplating what-if scenarios) and the finishing touch of a kitchen spatula used by the nurses to scoop up the little people once the procedure is complete. When Paul Safranek awakes, hairless and with an aching jaw he is greeted with the offer of a snack – a giant cracker package – a cheeky joke by the full-sized nurses teasing the newly miniaturised Paul who is in for even more rude awakenings.
This is a film about fear, modern anxiety, social envy and the search for doing something meaningful and being appreciated for good deeds. Of course, love conquers all – even among little people.
There is also a Christian message to the film, which is overwrought and out of place. After the initial set-up there are few surprises in an overly messianic and environmentally proselytizing sermon. The degree of tension or confrontation between the miniaturised folk and ‘normal’ people is minimal – there is one query by a big drunk guy that small people should only get 1/8th the vote because they don’t pay taxes, but otherwise the tensions and politics are swept aside. Interesting ideas about the abuse of luxury items for miniaturised people and the implication of the huge profit margins of transforming a single $50 Cohiba cigar into 200 branded cigars gives insight into the potential for profiteering but otherwise, save for a looming shadow of a dragonfly, the potential for the exploitation of the little people remains unexplored.
Downsizing is interesting, but a missed opportunity for something grander.