Downsizing is a science fiction about the end of the world, but none of the images conjured by that phrase apply here. In fact, it seems that defying expectations may have been the first goal of director Alexander Payne, who also co-wrote the script with Jim Taylor.
I don’t want to spoil much of the plot. This film was completely enjoyable without any introduction, but for the purposes of a review, let’s set the stage:
This world’s scientists are increasingly concerned about humanity’s impact on the environment, until a discovery is made at a small Norwegian laboratory that has been researching a slightly unorthodox solution to this problem. They’ve found a completely safe method to drastically reduce the mass of almost any living organism. The idea is that small people will create substantially less waste and pollution than us giants do.
Now, to film this brief. Clearly, the film should open with dire warnings on news reels. The president says something like “last hope for humanity” and the discovery is made in a room filled with dark blue light (and a smoke machine) surrounded by anxious models masquerading as scientists.
Instead, this scientist is a large, slightly round, middle aged man in a rather plain fluorescent-lit laboratory. He’s working alone except for the series of numbered mice. Instead of the build-up and drama, he sets the next test subject into the machine and kinda stairs off blankly until it dings, rather like a microwave.
What follows is a brilliant film that uses the conceit of smallness to build a quite literal microcosm of our world today. It deeply explores, in the best tradition of science-fiction, many of our most pressing concerns, and the hidden fears and sins of our society, all while seeming to be as light and inconsequential as that ding.
Matt Damon’s portrayal of the protagonist, a character more than once described as “a little bit pathetic”, is for the most part right on point. Though it was difficult at brief moments to see him as Paul Safranak (that’s Sah-FRA-nuk), a middle-class therapist with absolutely zero self-confidence, and not Jason Bourne, his polar-opposite.
Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau, in particular among the rest of the cast, were perfect in their roles. Waltz’s character, Dusan, an international supplier of illicit goods, is responsible for the wit and worldly, if self-serving, wisdom. And if his character seems a bit flat it is only in comparison to Ngoc Lan, played by Chau, a Vietnamese refugee who is exactly what you would expect in a real Vietnamese refugee and exactly what you would never expect from Hollywood.
The story itself was original and ambitious, although filmed in the most innocuous way with simple shots and bright, vibrant sets, as though the director was expressing his innocence of what is on screen. At the same time, it never settled into the peacefulness of its own cinematography.
This is the type of film that I will enjoy watching again with friends and analyzing it thoroughly afterwards, in almost, but not exactly, the same way we have analyzed other great sci-fi films about the end of the world.