Downsizing Positively Looks Up
Ever since the early days of film, when pioneers like Georges Melies and Fritz Lang used forced perspective to create the effect of someone being smaller than the average human, shrinking people has been a popular novelty emerging mostly in B-movies and family films. Though it was always something of a gimmick, even more so after the technology was seemingly perfected in Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
Enter Alexander Payne, director of such films as About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska. His latest movie, Downsizing, aims to offer a new perspective on shrinking stories, by using the idea as a jumping-off point for a basic exploration of humanity and life. And I have to say, I was surprised by no movie this year more than Downsizing!
Set in the not too distant future, Norwegian scientists have perfected an irreversible process called "downsizing", wherein people are shrunk down to five inches to live in miniature communities, as a solvent to overpopulation. A sustainable lifestyle with the lucrative attraction of an enormous exchange rate, meaning middle-class people can now live rich, it intrigues Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a financially insecure occupational therapist, and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). After the couple commits to downsizing, Audrey backs out at the last minute, leaving Paul small and alone to re-evaluate his life.
There really is no gimmickry to this movie. Sure there are humourous moments of small people interacting with large people and a joke or two that are mostly seen in the trailers, but the resizing element is at times almost incidental. It’s not like The Borrowers or indeed Honey I Shrunk the Kids, where it’s all based around the novelty of scale -indeed there are stretches where it’s not even visually apparent, apart from a clever detail in the background every once in a while. This is a movie that takes an idea and expands on it by presenting both a real character journey and a realistic world within its framework. And it’s an impeccably realized world. This film addresses the medical, societal, economic, environmental, and even political repercussions of "downsizing" on the world, to the point where, you believe, if it actually were possible, this is exactly what it would look like. There’s satire in this, of course, as with many of Payne’s movies, but it’s also coming from a place of earnestness, and fleshing out a concept to its logical conclusion from multiple vantage points.
The story is incredibly unexpected, especially after Paul is downsized and his life takes him in some very new directions. This is where the meat of the film is, and Paul’s journey to find meaning with his new life in this new world. We can all relate to the desire to start over, and this film presents a very appealing satiation of that. But the movie is all about adjustment; to new places, new people, new vocations and responsibilities, new knowledge, and new choices. It’s also about introspective themes about one’s place in the world and what is really worth getting out of life. And Downsizing absolutely achieves its ambition, capturing this beauty of life and raising some remarkable ideas. The ending especially is very foreign to where the movie started, but it has a grand melancholy poetry to it, like those of Her or Close Encounters. For a film that does delve into occasionally depressing material, and some dystopian elements, it is ultimately wonderfully life-affirming.
Damon is good as his every-man protagonist. There’s not a ton that’s distinct about his performance, but he does perform the character well. Christoph Waltz is very good too, as a character who begins as Paul’s neighbour, and Kristen Wiig is perfectly decent in her early movie screen-time. But by far, the stand-out is Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran. I can’t really say much about her character, except that she comes to interact with Paul in a very major way. And Chau is magnificent! In the wrong hands this would have been a really annoying character, given some of her actions and attitude; and admittedly when she first appears with an accent unfortunately reminiscent of Short Round from Temple of Doom, I was hesitant to follow her. But she really became the soul of the movie, with an immensely sympathetic story herself, and a personality that’s astonishingly endearing. The movie also features Udo Kier, and Rolf Lassgård as the inventor of downsizing, amusingly named Jørgen Asbjørnsen, both of whom are good fits. Jason Sudeikis has a minor role as the friend who helps convince Paul to downsize in the first place. And there are cameos from Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, James Van Der Beek, and Character Actress Margo Martindale, most of whom were seen in the trailer over the international characters who have more screen-time and significance. I hardly expected Downsizing, which from these promotional campaigns, looked like a funny and vaguely interesting but forgettable movie, to be one of my favourite theatre experiences of 2017, but it was. This is a beautiful film. It reminds me a lot Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty, which similarly took the idea of miniature people and weaved a unique narrative out of it. And while that films is a lot more visually pretty, this one went a little further to distance itself from the typical shrinking-story bullet points. In fact, very few of them make an appearance. Downsizing really does reinvent this little sub-genre of science fantasy, using it as a lens to explore greater things. And if only briefly, it convinces us of a process and perspective we all want to have.