Review: Downsizing

I wasn’t expecting much from Downsizing. At first glance it looks like an original, fun idea but a fairly average execution. But the trailer really doesn’t do this film justice. It’s funny and insightful and hides a serious message at its heart.

The premise goes like this: in post-war Norway, a foundation was established with the aim of identifying the greatest threats to humanity and finding solutions. They quickly figured out that over-population is the biggie, and the root cause of most of our other problems like food shortages and climate change. Their solution: shrink everyone down so we use much less resource per person. The foundation has a plan to make everyone tiny over the course of a few centuries, but to start with they have to sell the idea to smaller groups.

In Europe, they sell it as conceived: a way to save the planet. Naturally in the USA it’s a get-rich-quick scheme: since the “downsized” use fewer resources, so the pitch goes, your money will go much further. You can live in luxury on only modest savings. Other countries, we later learn, have turned the technology into a penal system. Any of this sound familiar yet?

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) has lived an unremarkable life. He dropped out of medical school to care for his sick mother. He now lives in her house with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), both dreaming of a better life. When they learn two old acquaintances have “downsized”, they allow themselves to get swept up in the excitement of planning a new, tiny, life together. Unfortunately Audrey backs out at the last second, letting Paul, unaware, go through the irreversible procedure alone.

The rest plays out more or less as you would expect. Paul is furious, then depressed, then slowly starts to pull himself together. The inevitable divorce left him penniless so he gets a job. He complains about the neighbour’s loud parties until he’s invited to one. After a wild night of booze and drugs he meets the cleaning lady Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) and recognises her as a refugee from the news: shrunk against her will because she was a political dissident, she escaped to the US in a shipment of TVs and barely survived the trip. She lives in the tiny shanty town outside the wall and steals surplus food and pills for the others in the community.

It’s a racial stereotype that balances a knife-edge, avoiding tipping into offensive only through context: everyone in this film is a stereotype, though few as blatant as she is. Nevertheless her appearance signals the point where the film takes a new and welcome direction from predictable to surprising, not so much in twists but in that you don’t quite expect it to “go there”.

There’s something almost nihilistic in the final act, a sense of hope lost in the big picture even as the characters rediscover it in their own lives.

Impressive, funny, serious…Well worth a look.