ON IN CINEMAS
Downsizing (2017) written and directed by Alexander Payne
A scientific breakthrough
Downsizing is set in a near-future where a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen perfects a technique whereby he can shrink human beings down to a tiny fraction of their size, a process which has two theoretical benefits. Firstly, it means that they consume far less of the planet’s deteriorating resources. Secondly, the fact that they need a lot less to survive means that they can live far more cheaply.
The main story picks up in Omaha, Nebraska several years after this breakthrough when an increasing number of the world’s population are choosing to undergo the process and live out the rest of their lives in a series of miniaturised communities. An occupational therapist named Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are the latest to do so. They head for one of the most popular of such communities, named Leisureland.
Immediately prior to being processed the pair are separated to head off to the male and female sections. However, after Paul is miniaturised Audrey calls him and explains that she has decided not to undergo the procedure. They separate and ultimately get divorced. Paul subsequently spends his time in Leisureland attempting to rebuild his life until an encounter with his extroverted upstairs neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and his Vietnamese housekeeper Ngoc (Hong Chau) gives him a new calling.
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A film that should have been cut down to size
As a science fiction allegory, Downsizing is certainly ambitious and well-meaning. Unfortunately, being “ambitious” and “well-meaning” doesn’t necessarily lead to unqualified success. The problem is that it bites off more than it can comfortably chew and tries to be so many different things that it loses any sense of direction. On some occasions it aims at quirky comedy. At others it stands on a soapbox and comments on hot-button issues such as the environment, inequality and prejudice. At other points it’s a study of a man who is trying to redefine himself in the aftermath of a marital breakup. There is even a bizarre detour into a drug-induced hallucinatory interlude which doesn’t have much relevance to the rest of the film. The uncertainty of focus isn’t the sole issue here but it’s certainly the main one. It’s a film that could have done with some downsizing itself and stuck with doing one thing well instead of multiple things with uneven results.
Its problems are peculiarly frustrating here since there are some genuinely strong and imaginative elements. Stefania Cella’s production design coupled with Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is a combined triumph for the way in which they play with perceptions of scale and detail so that the “miniature” locations have a dinky, dollhouse/toy town feel about them even when they are full-sized sets. The downsizing process itself is depicted in a wordless, graceful and hilarious montage of individual procedures ranging from the shaving of bodily hair to the scooping of miniaturised bodies off beds using specially-crafted metal utensils. There’s also Christoph Waltz who, as per usual, steals the show as a zany party-loving European with a habit of saying exactly what is on his mind at any given juncture - no matter how irreverent it may be.
It sputters in the second half
In general, the first half of the film which established both the world and its central protagonist (played by the likeable if rather conventional Matt Damon) is the strongest. It’s around the point when a character named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) enters the story that it starts to go off the rails. She’s a Vietnamese activist-turned-housekeeper living in a hitherto-hidden ghetto on the other side of Leisureland’s wall who introduces Paul to her world. She prompts the latter to re-evaluate his values in life. It’s at this point when the film switches gears to become a well-intentioned but overly earnest lecture. Moreover, it’s one that shoots itself in the foot by, in the same breath, pointing out that the downsizing process isn’t eliminating the inequalities and prejudices in society and yet making Ngoc’s character such a bossy, overbearing annoyance that it’s incredibly difficult for the viewer to sympathise with her plight in this regard.
The film’s closing stretch just gets worse and worse with an interminable journey down a Norwegian fjord, a bizarre portrayal of Nordic society which seems to have wandered in from Lord of the Rings and a few more jarring shifts in tone thrown in for good measure.
There will be many worse films than Downsizing released this year but there will be few that are more aggravating. There could so easily have been something great here, dammit!
Runtime: 135 mins
Dir: Alexander Payne
Script: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, James Van Der Beek