Much more than a sci-fi comedy

One of the key challenges facing a planet on which human life is becoming increasingly unsustainable is overpopulation. But what if you could find a way to downsize not just our companies or personal living spaces but people themselves—to 0.0346 percent of their current size? Not only would such a miniature population require only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s resources (compared to our normal-sized population), but a thousand people would produce only one small bag of waste in a year. It’s an absurd idea, of course, but that’s the premise of Downsizing, the latest film from writer/director Alexander Payne.

I would call Downsizing a profound sci-fi drama with lots of social satire and some moments of slapstick: original, refreshing, and endearing.

With such an absurd premise, we not only know that we are watching pure science fiction; we know that we are watching something that will never happen (unlike, for example, the scary, all-too-possible scenarios on the TV show Black Mirror). This means we can assume we are watching either a silly comedy (as the trailer for Downsizing would seem to suggest) or a film that is using its absurd premise to offer profound insights into how we should live our daily lives in the world we have.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers (though they are partly responsible, given the trailer), both film critics and average viewers apparently assumed the former. When Downsizing failed to deliver as a silly comedy, critics and viewers were lost and disappointed, as evidenced by the fact that 20 percent of the viewers in our theater walked out when they discovered they had been misled (i.e., that Downsizing is a serious, unusual, and slow-moving indie film, not a silly comedy).

This phenomenon is discouraging. As I watched people walk out during some of Downsizing’s best scenes, I wondered again if such a response will result in less imaginative films in the future. Will studios and filmmakers want to ensure a profit for their films by relying on safe, familiar stories that will not disappoint audiences the way Downsizing has done? There are critics and viewers who appreciate the uniquely imaginative Downsizing, but I do feel that the first step toward that appreciation is recognizing that Downsizing is not a silly comedy.

What is it then? I would call Downsizing a profound sci-fi drama with lots of social satire and some moments of slapstick. Our protagonist is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a 40-something occupational therapist who feels that his life has grown stagnant. When he sees that his downsized high school friend is much happier at the height of only five inches, Paul persuades his wife, Audrey (Kirsten Wiig), to consider downsizing, a Norwegian invention that will allow Paul and Audrey to move into the perfect miniature town of Leisureland. Audrey hesitates until she sees the huge mansion they could afford to live in, even without another day of work.

Unfortunately, things don’t work out too well for the downsized Paul (a common theme in the film) and he ends up even more unhappy than he was before, living in a small apartment and doing a job he hates (telephone salesperson) because he allowed his occupational therapist license to expire. It doesn’t help that his new neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), keeps having noisy parties. But when Dusan invites Paul to join one of the parties, Paul’s life will change forever, not least because of his encounter with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Ngoc Lan Tran is a Vietnamese protest leader who was imprisoned, downsized against her will, almost died in an illegal journey in a TV box, and is now a cleaning woman (working for Dusan).

I’ll say no more about the plot, because one of Downsizing’s greatest strengths is its lack of predictability. Other strengths include gorgeous cinematography and an appropriate collection of songs. The acting of all those mentioned above is excellent, but Chau stands out. Her character is one of the most original, refreshing, and endearing characters I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s Chau’s performance that makes it work.

Then again, Downsizing as a whole is one of the most original, refreshing, and endearing films I’ve watched in a long time. The relationships/friendships in the film are unusual but credible (and always fascinating); there’s a strong humanizing message throughout; there are many profound conversations about climate change and the future of our planet (not to mention scenes dealing with issues like gender, class, wealth, power, and of course, downsizing); and, above all, it provides clues as to how we can live meaningful lives amid the uncertainty of our times.

This thought-provoking film is possibly the most underrated film of the year. It may be too different to please viewers, but I encourage you to take a chance—and stay to the end.

Downsizing is rated R for language, including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use. (The graphic nudity involves small photos of downsized men.)


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.