The world is overpopulated and in the very near future it will become untenably crowded: fact. We don’t have enough space to comfortably house all these people, we don’t have the ecosystem to support them, or enough resources to fund the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. The rate at which these 7 + billion people consume means we are making waste and pollution like there’s no tomorrow – and if we continue doing so, there won’t be.
Luckily for fictional Matt Damon, a Norwegian scientist will come up with a revolutionary bit of science that’s going to sound nutty at first, but hear me out. He calls it downsizing. A medical procedure will taking a willing human being and shrink him down, to about 5 inches. These small people will live in small towns – dollhouses, practically, taking up little space, generating little waste. A typical person might liquidate all his assets, pay off all his debts, and find that the $150 000 he’s left with is equivalent to about $12 million in the small world. Live like a millionaire by becoming a fraction of your former self!
Occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are the kind of people to whom this kind of deal appeals. They work but never seem to get ahead. Sure this downsizing is billed as a way to save the earth, but it’s also a way to personally wipe the slate clean, and live the life you could only dream of as a normally-sized person.
As you can imagine, being only 5 inches tall comes with perks, but also some drawbacks. As writer-director Alexander Payne imagines it, there are social and economic impacts to all these people retiring from “normal” society. Illegal immigration and terrorism are facilitated. Downsizing can be used as punishment, against someone’s will. And even if you’re one of those people living in luxury, you’re suddenly vulnerable to insects, birds, even high winds.
Downsizing is a well-timed satire, science-fiction that manages not to feel too fictiony. Credit Payne’s wit for packing as much detail as he does, and if sci-fi feels a little outside the wheelhouse of the guy who did Sideways and Nebraska, he actually manages it with a lot of humour and humanity. Though the film is at times unabashedly absurdist, it stays away from easy sight gags. This is a thinking film that abounds with ideas – you’ll need to digest afterward. It’s an indictment of the American dream, people so disenfranchised that they’re willing to undergo a risky procedure just to find fulfillment. But miniaturization isn’t really the answer it’s cracked up to be, with people’s problems seeming shrinking down to follow them.
Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a nice guy who’s just a bit of a loser. But for Sean, it was Christoph Waltz as his playboy neighbour who really stole the show. He plays a Serbian sleazeball who figures that what the small community needs is a small black market, and he’s there to profit. I, on the other hand, was blown away by Hong Chau as his cleaner, Gong Jiang, a one-legged Vietnamese dissident who shows Paul there’s more to life than just keeping up with the Jason Sudeikises (he’s the classmate at his high school reunion who inspired Paul to go for the Big Shrink). When Oscar season starts heating up, I hope her name is mentioned.
Downsizing is a unique film with a lot of style. Despite being the opening night film here at the Venice Film Festival, it likely won’t be a best-picture contender for me, but it’s a film full of ideas that I found immensely enjoyable.