In the near future, a process has been developed that can shrink an average person down to about 5 inches as a way to manage overpopulation and resource depletion. The film follows Paul Safranek, someone who recently underwent the procedure, but it turns out that it is not the all-purpose problem fixer he was promised, as he traverses the strangely familiar terrain of the world, now seen through the eyes of a 5-inch man.
They say that science-fiction although set in the future or in space should tell you Earth in the here and now. For the most part Downsizing should have done that with a unique premise and an almost interesting message about the nature of humanity and the corrupting influence of consumerist culture. In the background of Downsizing there are some great little things to think about, like how the technology is used in prison systems, how oppressive governments use it to silence dissidents, how those who remain big begin to think about rights, height based slurs. The setting as well allows for a great rug pull, where the downsizing technology is billed as the saviour of mankind and yet people still experience the same problems. However, Downsizing takes that premise and shrinks all that promise to a minuscule dot that you have to strain your eyes to see.
This is a great shame because director, Alexander Payne, writer of The Descendants, Election and Nebraska has written some deeply human stories, able to twist comedy and tragedy together in interesting ways. Here though it just feels tired and the nine-year production cycle shows. We have bland characters played with all the joy of someone doing their taxes. Stars like Matt Damon and Kristen Wigg look like they are there just because they had nothing better to do. The only one having any shape of fun is Christoph Waltz who grins like a jackal as Serbian luxury goods broker Dušan Mirković and a surprise cameo from Udo Kier.
I mean I can kind of accept Damon’s bland character as Paul Safranek, because he is audience surrogate on this Alice in Wonderland style exploration. He is the one through which we plant ourselves in the situation and experience the concept of downsizing. Some of the most interesting scenes are surrounding the process of downsizing and I think we should have seen more of that. It is here that Payne could have presented us with a narrative of mechanics rather than emotion, which is something that I can get behind as a fan of Issac Asimov, author of I: Robot, who would explore the laws of mechanics in each of his stories. Instead, we get our lead as a hapless stick-in-the-mud romantic until a group of rag tag weirdos break him out of his shell. This tired narrative is shoddily draped over a meandering, overly long, two-hour charity advert; one of those obnoxious ones with starving children as the focus, with the flies around the eyes. There is nothing wrong with worthy cause movies and charity, it is just when the message is so ham fisted.
There is something in Downsizing that could have been a great short story or an episode of black mirror, but as a film it lacks any punch or bite that would have made it anything except a small whine in the back of your head. It starts out as an exploration of a concept and devolves into a simple tale of self-discovery and love. The problem is the script is lined with an edgier more interesting film that we could have had, which makes the dull, tired, cliched and obvious platitudes about environmentalism, racism and economic inequality all the more irritating.
You can watch Downsizing in cinema’s now