Growing up in the era of films like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Borrowers and The Indian In The Cupboard, there has always been a place in my heart for a ‘tiny person’ narrative. Though the trope doesn’t seem to be as widely used in fantasy and science fiction anymore, it’s for that very reason that the trailer for Downsizing grabbed my interest. It looked like it might have the promise to be a more mature and intellectual progression of all of the themes and visuals that this now 28-year-old loved so much when she was 10. I wasn’t expecting the same kind of Rick Moranis helmed family fun, but I was looking forward to seeing what the film had to offer.
Downsizing takes place in a near future in which the ability to shrink human beings to mere inches tall has been perfected and commercialised. Communities have been established all over the world, and seeking to live a more comfortable and sustainable life, Paul Sefranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to ‘get small’ and move to the renowned Leisureland community in New Mexico. Of course, in true movie fashion, things don’t go as smoothly as anticipated for Paul when Audrey backs out at the last minute, leaving him to a future without his wife and without his former size!
The film is a much more ambitious project than I anticipated, touching on many more hot topic science fiction tropes than the trailer would lead you to believe. What I thought was going to be a mostly lighthearted delve in to the novelties and gimmicks of living a ‘downsized’ lifestyle, actually turns in to an examination of the some of the major concerns that humanity faces in the centuries to come. Climate change, over population, species extinction, the effort to preserve humanity, these are all issues that become leading plot points in the narrative’s final third, and if I’m honest, I think the film is much more successful at having fun with the quirks of being small than it is with exploring the big environmental questions. The early visuals are are a lot of fun, the sequence in which Paul is downsized and everything that that involves being a particular highlight, and there is an almost Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands like wonder and quirkiness to the initial presentation of Leisureland that makes for some really enjoyable viewing.
Where the problem begins to arise, however, is in the way that the film gets bogged down in the heavier concepts and metaphors that it engages with, never really managing to hit any one of them out of the park. It raises interesting questions about things like class structure, racism, immigration and more, but doesn’t execute its messages well enough to engage the audience in the more serious tones the way it did in the earlier, more fun sections. There is so much to enjoy about the first half of the film, but, to my personal taste at least, it loses points for reverting to some of the tired old human preservation tropes that we have seen executed much better a hundred times before.
As Paul Safranek, Matt Damon gives a solid if not completely remarkable performance. He certainly impresses as the man at the beginning of the narrative, kind and caring, but at a dead end in his life, searching for something better in the form of a huge change. He exudes a genuine sincerity that makes these earlier stages really enjoyable and endearing, but as the plot progresses, I didn’t see as much courage and conviction in Damon’s performance as the character journey required.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran, a downsized Vietnamese activist who becomes heavily involved in Paul’s adventures, steals the show with an excellent performance. A character designed to show the darker, more sinister side of the downsizing phenomenon, Ngoc Lan’s backstory is a heartbreaking one, and Chau excels in giving the films some its most affecting moments as well as its most humours. A performance with real layers.
Strangely, the film puts an objectively stellar supporting cast list to quite underwhelming use. Stars like Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, even the likes of much smaller part players like Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern are all criminally underused, and the fun and interesting universe building that they provide actually results in the audience being more interested in their characters than in Paul, who if I’m being totally honest, is kind of a boring guy.
Overall, Downsizing is an enjoyable enough social satire that certainly has its moments of poignancy, but that unfortunately can’t quite sustain itself for long enough to be a real triumph. It’s the perfect example of a film that gives birth to so many ideas that it can’t execute more than one or two of them efficiently, leaving the rest of proceedings to feel slightly lacking and underdeveloped. Lots of fun from a visual standpoint, but a little messy and, dare I say, dull at the business end.