Alexander Payne promises big but falls ironically short with Downsizing, a sci-fi comedy-drama with more to say than is quite within its capacity.
Set in our near future, the film sees scientists come up with ‘The only practical, humane and inclusive remedy to humanity’s greatest problem’, this being ourselves. As the human race continues to over-populate our increasingly resource-stretched planet, a Germany lab successfully creates a way to shrink people to Borrower dimensions. With humans reduced by a ratio of 2744:1, diminished too is human waste, pollution and spatial requirements. They call it: ‘downsizing’.
According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Science Fiction, every high-concept film needs an everyman to surrogate the audience into the concept and guinea pig the experience. As such, Matt Damon plays down-on-his-life Paul, an Occupational Therapist still living in the home he grew up in, albeit with wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Paul’s youthful dreams of becoming a surgeon having come to nothing, it is little surprise that downsizing presents to him a chance at a fresh start. It is, he says, ‘the biggest thing since landing on the moon!’
Selling the idea to Audrey, the pair set out to the miniaturised colony idyll of Leisureland and undergo a pleasingly icky procedure of shaving, irrigation and tooth extraction. Also pleasing, to this point, is the film’s warmly traditional tone and pace. A plucky soundtrack from Rolfe Kent – not dissimilar from Damon’s recent Suburbicon – bounces along nicely, whilst the comedy roles nicely in the script by Payne and Jim Taylor. Indeed, along with the cinematic aesthetics here, Downsizing feels borrowed from the TV room of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Douglas Addams.
Things, however, began to go awry hereafter with a shift in diegesis also not dissimilar to that of Suburbicon. When Paul awakes in Leisureland he does so with the discovery that his wife panicked last-minute and opted out of downsizing. In the same instance, or rather, in the immediately following sequence, it becomes clear how little she is missed from the film, belying just how thin these characterisations are.
Audrey is not all the script unceremoniously drops at this point either, as the whole raison d’être of the film – the actual ‘downsizing’ – becomes largely irrelevant to the remainder. Not all the inhabitants of Leisureland were so lucky as to have a choice in being there and so Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (an enigmatic Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will by Vietnam’s repressive government. Ngoc being far more worldly than the American-everyman, she introduces Paul to a world of poverty and suffering, inspiring him to help those in need. It’s more or less a prince and the pauper twist in the plot.
Worthy that this new direction is – if a little too in line with the ‘white savour’ mould – it does disappointingly remove the action from Payne’s more unique concepts. Hints are made at rifts developing between humans big and small, with frictions over voting rights and segregation, but go nowhere. By the time the script shifts once again in its, slightly bewildering, third act, the fact that these characters are less than a foot tall is rendered no more than a gimmick.
With quirky turns by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier in its roster, Downsizing makes for a perfectly enjoyable watch but is too much of a hodgepodge to coherently satisfy. A fun but messy two hours.