Movie Review: Downsizing

“Size counts.” “Bigger is better.” While these billboard statements inevitably link back to anatomy… it wasn’t long ago that it was the refrain of a local cinema chain: always better on the big screen. Big and small have a wonderful relationship in cinema, allowing film-makers to transport the viewer to another dimension through eye-popping visual contrasts and trick photography. It was done quite masterfully in the ’50s sci-fi classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and was well-received when Rick Moranis followed through on an equally mesmerising concept in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Now that the world is growing bigger and smaller simultaneously, it’s becoming clear that we need to become smarter and wiser about our use of resources and treatment of the environment. Eco-friendly products, recycling trash and upcycling packaging in an attempt to minimise our carbon footprint are just some of the small ways we can help care for the future of our planet. Alexander Payne’s sci-fi comedy drama, Downsizing, takes it a step further with social satire… by literally minimising our footprint by shrinking the human body to 5 inches so that it doesn’t take up as much food, space, water or air or expend as much waste. Live on less and convert your meagre savings into a wealthy retirement fund!

Payne directed About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska and branches into science fiction with Downsizing starring Matt Damon. The director is best known for his poignant, lifelike dramas, which are meticulously balanced character portraits that blend comedy and tragedy quite seamlessly. One gets the impression he was attached to this project to bring the same emotion, humanity and weight to a concept, which could have been a straight up comedy. The balancing act is critical, drawing the audience in with a cleverly positioned scientific breakthrough and asking them to suspend their disbelief for two and a bit hours. This strong grounding in reality primes us for the real drama between two people, within the framework of a small world.

While a noble idea, and backed by some thought-provoking and beautifully composed moments, the marriage is an uneasy one. It feels like two movies have been glued together, which makes the experience quite rickety, not quite doing justice to the expansive science fiction at play or the comedic edge. The fish-out-of-water science fiction behind this film is unpacked in great detail to serve as foregrounding and essentially window dressing to a more focused dramedy.

While the Downsizing concept is explored, it feels like it’s simply there for effect, not really enhancing the story as much as a direct focus would have benefited the central relationship. While imperfect, it’s a fascinating world and Payne manages to immerse us in the idea of “what if?” quite successfully. Unsure of whether to push for comedy or drama and taking place in front of the curtains of a sci-fi concept, it just seems a bit underwhelming.

 “Guys, we’re small… not deaf.”

Damon is a quality actor, who is good at doing the everyman thing, but this can work against him in terms of delivering an anonymous rather than textured performance. Likable and unassuming in this role, it’s easy to let him take the wheel… bouncing off his co-stars in Kirsten Wiig, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau. Waltz gets into his usual charming and maniacal space as a free-spirited neighbour, but it’s Chau who becomes the real scene-stealer as an amusing, outspoken refugee.

The imagination behind actualising this world where big and small co-exist is where most of the fun and adventure lies in this unusual film. The novelty wears off around the halfway mark as the narrative zooms into the heart of the matter and contrasts become add-ons. While travelling the world and exploring some unsettling cultural and economic disparities, Downsizing gets to the point where it’s just trying to do too much… spreading out in all directions and losing some impact value in the process.

If you enjoyed A Hologram for the King with Tom Hanks, there’s a good chance you’ll like Downsizing. Both films have a similar construct and qualities, making it comparable on several levels. You don’t regret seeing the ambitious and discordant Downsizing based on the quality of the ingredients, the timely concept and wonderful visual contrasts, but it just seems like a missed opportunity.

The bottom line: Curious