In recent months, climate change has been at the top of the international political agenda; with America controversially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last August, extreme weather bringing plenty of devastation and the BBC’s monster hit Blue Planet warning of its oceanic effects on primetime television, momentum to understand and act to reduce the effects of global warming is growing. Of the many novel solutions addressing the damaging impact of humanity on the natural world, and perhaps the most unusual, is the one put forward by Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing which premiered at the London Film Festival last October – if we want to reduce our impact on the world we simply need to reduce the size of humans.
This is not the first time that writers and movie-makers have used this idea for surreal or comic effect resulting in work as divergent as Alice in Wonderland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace that unite science fiction, fantasy and sometimes farce as the characters overcome numerous challenges to be restored to their true size. The difference with Downsizing is that the reduction is permanent, and so the film looks elsewhere for its dramatic drivers, with the scientific process for physically shrinking people used as a frame for a wider examination of inequality, deprivation and the empty pursuit of the American dream.
If all that sounds rather serious then don’t despair because Downsizing begins on a much lighter note. When a Scandinavian scientist stuns the world with his community of tiny humans who produce considerably less waste in miniature form than their fully sized counterparts, the ability to transform rapidly becomes a widescale commercial success. Several years later, humanity is divided into two, those who retain their full size and those who have become only 5 inches tall, with the latter living in specially designed communities.
The real story begins when Paul and Audrey Safranek’s (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to give up the drabness of their current life of making ends meet to undergo the ‘downsizing’ process. But something goes wrong and Paul is left alone in his new community where he is unwillingly dragged into the colourful world of his exuberant international neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). While at his lowest point, Paul discovers that this perfect mini-world is not all it seems, and beyond the boundaries of the rich community poverty and overcrowding exist. As Paul is introduced to the underclass by Dusan’s no-nonsense cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau) he realises life could have more meaning than he ever imagined.
Downsizing is only a partially successful film and its best moments are in the first 75 minutes where the focus on the shrinking process is convincingly plotted and well-conceived. Watching the Safranek’s evaluated their lives, meet friends who have been shrunk and even attend a cleverly-staged trade fair where companies attempt to sell them miniature houses to live in and to “buy” the lifestyle they want upfront. There is lots of nicely considered detail including the relative transfer of wealth that makes money worth more in the smaller world, so that if the struggling Safraneks transform they could live in relative luxury, in a mansion without having to work again – a key reason for many to take the plunge rather than reducing their environmental impact.
Science-fiction fans will also enjoy the focus on the physical procedure as the audience follows Paul through his preparation for reduction including the removal of all his hair and marks, being wheeled, along with the other men, into the shrinking machine before removal to recovery by tiny nurses at the other end. Payne also injects a childlike glee in visually establishing the different scale of items within the story representing its shrunken humans against now giant everyday objects including biscuit packets, bottles and a single rose head.
Payne, who wrote the film along with Jim Taylor, also manages Paul’s disillusionment well as he adjusts to his newer lonely life. Much humour is wrung from Dunsan’s elaborate parties and from Christoph Waltz’s characterisation which draws a useful contrast between the carefree sun-seeking approach to his new life and Paul’s much lonelier journey of displacement. Even the discovery of the high-rise slums beyond the Stepford-like community seems to have something interesting to say about the cost of elaborate dreams and the almost inevitable division between rich and poor that will exist regardless of socially engineered attempts to iron them out. Living your dream life will always be at someone else’s expense. If only this was presented more subtly, but it is in this section of the film that the fun dissipates rapidly, leaving a serious and rather po-faced story in its place.
In the final part of the film, Downsizing’s plotting and purpose become over-elaborate and confused, departing considerably from what seemed to be the original purpose of the film. With a misfit group of unlikely friends now established, the action sees the group leave America on a spurious premise to track down the original tiny community and link back into the original scientific purpose of shrinking people. Even though this dominates the final hour of the film, it feels rather tacked on, and by geographically opening the story out it loses the focus it had established.
The two communities are not sufficiently connected to warrant this journey, and while the film has primarily been concerned with Paul’s growing understanding and adaptation to his new world, the sudden focus on a new hippy community, climate change and the madness that ensues from cutting yourself off with the world is too jarring and cartoon-like to be convincing. Had Downsizing remained in its original community-setting, tackling the inequality it presents in living conditions while allowing Paul to find some sense of contentment, it would have felt more dramatically satisfying than what is a mish mash of silly ideas that are neither amusing or really very meaningful.
Matt Damon is decent everyman Paul whose comedy partnership with Kristen Wiig’s Audrey works very nicely in the film’s early scenes and they make for a convincing couple. Damon, though never given the opportunity to do very much, navigates the film’s changing tones quite well, conveying all of Paul’s excitement to start a new life, disappointment and depression at being left alone, frustration with his neighbour and growing admiration for the people he meets in the deprived tower blocks. Yet, there’s never a chance to get inside his head, although much of that is down to the film’s inconsistent tone – if it’s a light comedy then characterisation is less important, while something more serious needs proper character motivation.
With a broadly comic performance, Christoph Waltz as Dunsan is an unexpected highlight as the sociable but socially unaware European neighbour who rescues Paul from his malaise. Used to seeing Waltz as psychopaths and megalomaniacs, he creates a surprisingly camp and eccentric character that steals most of the film’s more amusing moments, and while in any other movie this would feel hugely exaggerated, Waltz brings some much-needed light relief in the later parts of the film.
Hong Chau is an actor to watch and her performance as former Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc is full of promise with sharp comic timing and the ability to bring out the emotional undertones of any scene. Yet, there is something slightly amiss in the way the character is written and despite Chau’s performance, it’s difficult not to feel slightly uncomfortable with way Ngoc is positioned as the butt of stereotypical jokes about her stilted English and blunt demeanour, it’s really not the 1980s any more. And as for other female characters, apart from Wiig’s all to brief appearance in the early part of the film, this ultimately boils down to yet another story about a man saving the world when, what amounts to his own greed for a more luxurious life, made him to see things differently.
What starts as a social satire that revels in the visual humour of differently scaled objects unfortunately descends into a heavy-handed message-film that takes itself a bit too seriously and ultimately has very little to do with the consequences of shrinking people. With an ending that is entirely out of kilter with the original set-up and a meandering plot that becomes too elaborate for the writers to successfully conclude, Downsizing leaves the audience both disappointed and slightly uneasy. There is about an hour’s worth of good comedy in here and if it had continued to satirise the preoccupation with individual wealth over community then it would have been a much more successful film, but with its muddied and half-hearted environmental credentials, Downsizing falls a little short.
Downsizing was previewed at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 24th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1