Downsizing is mostly a disappointment because it feels like a waste of a brilliant idea. Instead of honing in on the specifics of the impact of this technology, it pivots in the opposite direction and forces us to spend time solving the least interesting part of the equation.
There’s always an inherent curiosity built into science-fiction stories that explore the possibilities of what’s to come. You start with an idea and move outward, slowly building a world that is touched in all corners by the effects of some new technology or ability. The implications build, the problems arise, and the narrative forms around reactions to and solutions for a problem entirely of our own making. Downsizing seemed poised to do more of the same until it abandoned its clever premise, bottomed out, and became yet another mediocre film about a white man’s midlife crisis.
In the film, due to impending catastrophic climate change, a scientist invents a new medical procedure called “downsizing“ that shrinks people down to five inches. At their new small size, their impact on the environment and waste production is significantly decreased.Facing financial problems and enticed by the increase in value their savings would have should they downsize, Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) elect to undergo the procedure and move to a “small community“ in New Mexico. But after enduring the transition, Paul awakes to find that Audrey has changed her mind, neglected to undergo the procedure, and is leaving him to live in “Leisureland“ alone. The rest of the film centers on Paul’s relationship with his neighbor’s Vietnamese housecleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), and dissident who was downsized by her government as punishment for civil disobedience and later smuggled into the US.
The two eventually make it to Norway where the original small community still exists, only to discover that they will soon be heading underground into a bunker to survive the climate event they believe is coming. Paul wants to join them, thinking that he life of mishaps has led him to this rare opportunity, but Ngoc Lan insists that he is foolish to go, and he can do more good by returning with her to the slums where she lives and continuing to tend to its poor and needy residents.
The problems with this movie are manyfold but the biggest is simply that is lags dreadfully in the middle. The interesting premise is nearly abandoned altogether and instead becomes yet another meditation on the meaning of life. The film’s first third does a good job of setting up the problem: climate change is coming and something must be done. The incentives to downsize are mostly financial: the middle class can live like kings as their needs are diminished and their dollars stretch farther. On the other hand, there are economic issues involved as so many people opt out of the workforce. Some people aren’t eligible for the procedure due to illness or disability. The procedure is used by hostile governments to get rid of protestors. Borders are less secure as downsized people are easily smuggled between countries. There is a lot of meat and possibility in these issues. It was reminiscent of 2009’s Timer and the way a simple change had ever-blossoming ramifications for the people in the story.
But at its heart, Downsizing is about Paul feeling lost, unsure, and without purpose. Meeting Ngoc Lan allows him access to world he was not previously privy to, but the poor of Leisureland exist mostly to make Paul feel useful again. It’s a missed opportunity that Paul eats up so much of the plot when Chau’s Ngoc Lan was by far the most interesting character, imbued with a depth of emotion and density of feeling that is often hard to come by in roles that skew so close to racial stereotyping. But Chau is brilliant in the role, bringing a defiant dismissiveness that is fun to watch, but also well-earned given the character’s backstory. Damon’s performance isn’t bad per se, it is simply nothing that stretches his range. At no point does the film really make an effort to engender real sympathy for him. Instead it assumes the audience brings that coming in, and insulting and incorrect supposition.
Downsizing is mostly a disappointment because it feels like a waste of a brilliant idea. Instead of honing in on the specifics of the impact of this technology, it pivots in the opposite direction and forces us to spend time solving the least interesting part of the equation. There were so many easy fixes that could have made this at the very least, and enjoyable dark satire, instead of an overlong examination of the impossibility of being.