Downsizing review: Big ideas, scaled down

  • Downsizing (2018)

Asking us all to start small to see the bigger picture, Alexander Payne offers us a handful of thought-provoking ideas. But pitching us the vision of the future that won’t change without our efforts, the script forgets to scale it up.

downsizing review

Once upon a time, a Scandinavian scientist comes up with a technology that could significantly reduce the human footprint on the planet. It seems sound, so the audience at the convention it’s presented at erupts in applause: we’d take up less space, so the housing crisis could disappear; we’d produce less rubbish and travel in smaller vehicles, so we’d produce less pollution; we’d use fewer resources, so we can divide them more evenly. Imagine this bright future!

It’s not that simple to rule out the greed, however, so the idea quickly gets opportunistic spin-offs. Even if it’s initially a scientific solution to save the Earth from the impact of the human consumptionism, soon it becomes a trend. Companies big it up to sell promises of a more comfortable and environmentally responsible life. There’s a catch, however. Once you become a minified version of yourself, you’re never able to return to your natural size.

Paul and Audrey Safranek lead a monotonous life, so the prospect of changing it up for a privileged one enchants them almost instantly. They inquire about the contract and sign up for the procedure. But Paul’s wife (criminally underutilised Kristen Wiig) withdraws last minute, so he enters this new world on his own, feeling even more hollow than before.

Downsizing ambitiously decides to showcase a handful of individuals that have varied purposes for the new technology. Many people do it because it’s a fast-tracked “get rich” scheme and not because they care about the environment; this is what the leading couple are initially enticed with, too. Some of the new inhabitants of the miniaturised world see it only as a business opportunity. Christoph Waltz as Dusan – a sly, cynical smuggler – gets a chance to show off his abilities by creating one of the most interesting characters in the story. His smug, effortlessly charismatic hedonist brings a lot of uproarious moments to the film with perfectly timed responses and carefree attitude.

Damon as Paul doesn’t get anything unconventional to do. His character becomes a lens through which we observe the transitioning world, but doesn’t offer any unexpected insights. He makes a difficult decision, “loses” the loved ones, and his life doesn’t become different until he embarks on an enlightening journey – it’s a popular trope we’ve seen many times before, and Downsizing struggles to put an interesting spin on it. However, the actor does utilise the gags to his advantage and keeps us entertained throughout.  And if we zoom out of his small world, there’s a whole lot of thought-provoking observations we could focus on.

As the action speeds up, we realise that the social injustice doesn’t shrink with the people – in fact, it’s just as prominent as it’s always been. We witness it when Paul enters the slum just outside the borders of the mini fairytale land, occupied by the impoverished, hungry people without any access to healthcare or any other privileges of the miniaturised world. Of course, shrinking becomes a political weapon: terrorists and dictators use it for their own purposes, and bridging the gap between the small and the big world also proves tricky. All of these ideas are tightly packed into the film and convincing, but it’s a pity some of them aren’t elaborated upon, given they’ve got at least one character to benefit from such an adjustment.

Cue Ngoc, played by Hong Chau, a political prisoner trying to escape the dictatorship in a TV box. With her, we understand that the problems created by intolerance and self-absorption can’t be resolved if we don’t do our small bit in the world. Although the portrayal feels heavily stereotypical, and some of the gags at the expense of her accent and ways of speaking are cheap laughs, she does deliver a great performance working solely with what she’s got. If her role was emphasised and emboldened, the story could have an interesting prospect of venturing in a completely different way.

However, we can’t forget about the set design and cinematography that make this fictional world a believable one. The use of everyday objects in this changed world is particularly impressive – think of a rose bud as a massive table decoration, for instance. The scene in the clinic, when Paul sees Audrey for the last time, stays in your mind for a while, too. The Norway unit is also remarkable, capturing the atmosphere behind the communal life by the fjords, and subtly highlighting how what a tiny part of the entire ecosystem humans are; even the fact-filled opening scene doesn’t have the same impact.

Downsizing was screened as a part of the 61st London Film Festival. It opens in the UK on the 24th of January 2018.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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