I have no idea who could have read the screenplay to Downsizing and thought it would be okay. ‘Sure, let’s give this something like sixty million dollars for the realisation. I understand the impulse behind it, there’s a new idea being introduced every few pages or so. Alexander Payne has made some real wild things work before, if he can take all the disparate aspects that he’s tilting towards and tie them into a cohesive whole, it’ll be brilliant.
You’re pushing the film the whole time to make a good job of itself, but sooner or later you just have to accept that it’s never going to cohere. The dream might be that it feels like some breathless rush in which sacrifice and loss are fleeting, come to be replaced by the giddying amazement at the new. It fails, primarily I guess because Matt Damon’s lead is nothing, he is a void of interest both for the audience and the world. Other characters comment often on how they find themselves strangely attracted to this uncharismatic man.
They absolutely have to, otherwise the film would cease to retain any believability. So, in the present a Norwegian scientist invents a process to shrink organic matter in order to create a more environmentally friendly human. Ten years later society has realised the economic advantage of being small and so people are just going for it. Matt Damon and his wife Kristen Wiig are not doing well enough financially to buy a McMansion and spend half an hour making up their minds as to whether to go through this irreversible process.
See, the film starts to chafe around that point. We’re introduced to their lives, their family and friends, the ethics and politics of this technology in the wider world. Then after a half hour of that we get an extended montage detailing the shrinking process and immediately cut to a year later. Everything that happened in the film up to that point is never referenced again and has no impact on the ongoing plot.
That’s not to say that films can’t do this, but it happens again and again and every time we see the world reset, it’s always around the same man. The same unthinking, unfeeling, dolt. He never seems to learn from his experiences, he never seems to hold opinions on his discoveries, we just find ourselves in a new place waiting for him to stumble across someone compelling to hold our attention for a few minutes.
The two that hold the most attention are Cristoph Waltz as Dušan Mirković and Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran. They’re like the little voices whispering in Damon’s ear trying to make him a more interesting person. Dušan is the playboy hedonist advocating a life of drugs and sex; Ngoc Lan Tran is an escaped Vietnamese political prisoner, shrunk against her will, who after some being international acclaim was left in poverty and who now serves and protects the hidden underclass of this supposedly perfect land.
I guess they’re all unlikely friends too, I don’t know. It’s hard to place any of them really, I think the film is supposed to be comic, at least in a sense. That’s Payne’s thing right, comic dramas? It would explain why everyone acts the way they do but not the fact that there ain’t a single joke that hits in the whole joint. Like, is Dušan unable to take anything seriously or is the screenplay trying to ring out jokes. Same with Ngoc Lan who seems to veer between idiocy and profundity as the script requires. When she jokes about killing an old woman by overdose, you don’t even know what it’s supposed to be.
Suddenly then, after a second act all concerned with the economic inequality of this place, we decamp to Norway for a conclusion that again barely relates to anything we’ve seen before and introduces a whole new moral quandary that is ill-conceived and inane. It’s full of ideas, you can say that for it, no doubt. But it’s full of ideas in that undergrad stoner way where it just invites you for a moment to, ‘Think about it, dude.’
There’s no comprehension of anything here because the film breezes past everything at such a rate that there’s no time to approach it. Not to say it’s fast paced, it takes its time to obsess over the surface, the visual details, the feel of places. Just not what any of them mean. You could make a whole film about any of these issues, people do all the time. Downsizing steadfastly refuses to engage with anything. What does the systemic oppression of ethnic minorities mean here, and how does that relate to reality? Or even if not, why does our comprehension of a perfect life necessitate the presence of a subjugated servant class?
Downsizing is a film in which none of its characters are responsible for the world they live in. Matt Damon eventually learns that one should have compassion for the poor but never confronts the ideology that leads to their existence. We’re too obsessed with goodness, it’s enough to have a film where a boring white man turns into a good boring white man.
Goodness is not the same as righteousness, or as justice. It doesn’t matter here though. There’s so little focus that to conclude with goodness is good enough I guess. You can’t expect humanitarianism from a film that barely bothers to make itself human.
Downsizing is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Image credit George Kraychyk