Simon Dillon reviews the sci-fi parable.


Downsizing, the latest from writer/director Alexander Payne, is a curious beast. It has a fascinating premise, a surplus of ideas, and despite being overlong and episodic, has insightful things to say about the human condition.

Strapped for cash Paul (Matt Damon), and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), agree to undergo downsizing - a radical (and irreversible) process whereby they are shrunk and placed in a miniature community called Leisureworld, following a recent scientific breakthrough intended to combat overpopulation and climate change. At first, despite the rigours of the process itself (requiring the removal of all hair and dentures, for instance), the option appears idyllic, as anyone with modest income and savings finds themselves essentially millionaires in the economy of Leisureworld. But inevitably there is a dark side to paradise.

After a personal catastrophe that takes place as soon as Paul arrives in his new world, he descends into self-absorbed melancholia, until he comes into contact with his cynical, partying opportunist next door neighbour Dusan (a somewhat caricatured Christoph Waltz), and his Vietnamese refugee cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau). Despite horrific tragedies in her past, Paul discovers Ngoc is something of a good Samaritan to the underclass that occupy the lowest echelons of Leisureworld. Gradually he begins to help her, and so begins a journey of self discovery.

Playing like a cross between The Incredible Shrinking Man and An Inconvenient Truth by way of Gulliver's Travels, Downsizing is nothing if not ambitious. Previously Payne had not directed any films involving major visual effects, but the miniaturisation themes here obviously require a great deal, and they are very well done. Performances are generally good, especially from Hong Chau, and there many moments of humour and poignancy along the way.

There can be no doubt that the film loses momentum in the second half, although it is still worthwhile. Despite jarring shifts in tone, from Swiftian satire to unlikely romance via apocalyptic science fiction, thoughts are definitely provoked on a variety of subjects. For example, the delusional folly of those who pretend they are downsizing to help the environment, despite the fact that it will mean they acquire immense wealth, reflects a great deal of real world hypocrisy.

Other issues explored, including human gullibility and propensity to pervert science for consumerist, tyrannical or otherwise destructive ends, delve deep into the fallen nature of mankind. The film even tackles the alarming lunacy of doomsday cultists in it's latter stages, with Dusan wryly pointing out that although said cultists are peaceful and happy as they enter their pseudo Noah's Ark, they'll have killed each other long before the world actually ends. Perhaps most positively, Downsizing also explores a journey from self-absorbed materialism to genuine Christ-likeness (Ngoc is a Christian, and proves a great influence on Paul).

As well as pointing out the flaws, I am also obliged to warn about the presence of bad language and nudity in a few places, but nothing was gratuitous. Indeed, for all it's faults, Downsizing is a fascinating if overreaching sci-fi parable, with it's heart genuinely in the right place. It's not in the Sideways/About Schmidt pantheon of vintage Payne, but well worth a watch nonetheless. CR

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