DOWNSIZING. US, 2017, 135 minutes, Colour. Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgard, Udo Keir, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, James Van der Beek, Laura Dern, Neal Patrick Harris, Margo Martindale, Joaquin De Alameida.
Directed by Alexander Payne.
There are all kinds of ways about imagining how humans might change the world, might improve human nature, might prepare for the end of the human race. Downsizing looks at all these aspects.
The opening of the film keeps the audience on its toes. An experiment in a scientific centre in Norway has succeeded in reducing living creatures to about 5 inches or 12 cm in height. Some years later, at a scientific convention, the organiser of the experiment presents the scientist who made the breakthrough – 5 inches high. Excitement, exhilaration.
Then, 10 years later, people go willingly into the downsizing program. The audience is introduced to a centre in the US, going into a small satellite city called Leisureland. There are various advertising campaigns, budget plans for those seeking something different. And that is the case with Paul and Audrey (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) who decide that they will go into downsizing mode. Lots of discussion amongst friends, family, chats with those who are downsized.
There is a bit of tension as the couple undergo the process, shaved, naked, injected, recuperating, and walking out into a new life. Actually, it doesn’t go as Paul had planned for him and his wife – she backed out.
While the motivation for downsizing is to help population and sustaining the world by using so much less of its energy and resources, there is a lot of lip-service to this ideal – but, we realise and soon see that, human nature being what it is, there is a lot of self-focus in downsizing, in leading a life of leisure and hedonism. Yet, Paul works diligently in a company at a desk, although his earlier ambitions had been to be a doctor and he had had to be satisfied with occupational therapy.
We are then introduced to a number of eccentric characters, especially Christoph Waltz as Paul’s upstairs Serb neighbour, hosting rowdy parties, glitz and glamour, and there is no one like Christoph Waltz to create a somewhat creepy character. He is joined at the party with a lifelong friend who owns a yacht (who can send it to Norway by FedEx and it will arrive before he himself arrives there, in planes which have seating for both sizes).
Then there is the Vietnam dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), imprisoned, having lost a leg, now running a cleaning company including Waltz’s apartment. She would have made a very good prison warden, strong-minded, direct, uttering orders which she takes for granted will be obeyed – and that includes Paul (who finds an occupational therapy outlet in working on her leg.
The film then takes a different direction, introducing Paul to the downside of downsizing, people on welfare, living in crowded tenements, slums, people in medical need, a whole range of people that Ngoc Lan Tran cares for. A whole new perspective on life Paul, self-sacrificing care.
And then the film takes you another different direction, with the four central characters all going to Norway, to the original colony, to meet the founder and the breakthrough scientist. Paul is exhilarated, in admiration. But, the scientist is predicting the end of human life, wants to establish a colony deep in the mountains, a remnant who can emerge after the Earth cataclysm.
Will the enthusiastic Paul go? Will the others go? What is the alternative?
Alexander Payne has cowritten and directed quite a number of arresting films including Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska. He raises interesting human nature questions and environmental puzzles.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.