A long-time chronicler of middle-class middle America in mid-life crisis, through Matthew Broderick’s teacher taken down by Reese Witherspoon’s scheming student in Election to Paul Giamatti’s endless sunsets and drinking sessions as he moved Sideways through his life, other than a contribution to the script of Jurassic Park III writer/director Alexander Payne has never viewed his preoccupations through the lens of science fiction until the time came for radical measures in Downsizing.
Paul Safranek (The Martian‘s Matt Damon) is a good son to his ailing mother and a good husband to Audrey (Ghostbusters‘ Kristen Wiig), but life is a struggle, not just for him, but for billions of people across a planet struggling to sustain a population which will only ever increase to the point of collapse.
Inspired by their college friends who they catch up with at a reunion, Paul and Audrey make the decision to “downsize,” a revolutionary technique developed by Doctors Jørgen Asbjørnsen and Andreas Jacobsen of the Edvardson Institute of Bergen in Norway fifteen years earlier. Shrunk to a fraction of their size they will consume less, they will produce less waste, and their precarious finances will be magnified, helping to save the planet and themselves.
Planning to retire to a mansion and live in comparative luxury and safety in the microcosm of Leisureland, at the last moment Audrey panics and abandons Paul, already irreversibly miniaturised. Newly single, the mansion presumably lost in the divorce, he works in a dead-end call centre and rents an apartment beneath playboy Dušan Mirković (The Zero Theorem‘s Christoph Waltz) who has a very different perspective on life on the small side of town.
The process of miniaturisation not new to science fiction, from the emergency medical intervention of Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage to the broad comedy of Joe Johnston’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Joe Dante‘s Innerspace, it is customary for the technology to be novel, driving the plot, rather than ubiquitous and examining the wider societal impact.
In the light character comedy of the opening act Downsizing does resemble the work of Dante as Payne satirises the brochure-perfect American dream only available to the very wealthy or the very fortunate, but like all Payne’s works it meanders as aimlessly as his characters, lost in life and directionless.
Oversized at two and a quarter hours it is the film itself which needs downsized, any message Payne is trying to impart diluted by superfluous scenes as the passive and pliant Paul is swept along by the currents of life and coincidence which introduce him to Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Inherent Vice‘s Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political activist forcibly downsized who now lives in a shanty town just beyond Leisureland.
A hidden underclass still existing to support the privileged, everybody has more when downsized but some still have more than others, but Paul’s journey to appreciate the importance of what was already in front of him lacks the focus or depth of even The Incredible Shrinking Man, the encroaching environmental disaster and the deeper implications of the possibilities of abuse of the technology fuzzy background details as the camera lingers on another sunset, Downsizing ultimately not a cure for anything other than insomnia.