Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chau
Director: Alexander Payne
135 minutes (15) 2017
Paramount Blu-ray region B
Review by Steven Hampton
Ahead of a returning ‘tiny dude’ in Ant-Man And The Wasp, here’s Matt Damon in a sci-fi comedy-drama where a man who shrinks to five inches tall is not a superhero but makes critical sense in the crunch-time of an economic crisis. Emerging from odd experiments in a Norwegian laboratory for human-scaled sustainability research, the invention of cellular reduction becomes a wholly practical answer to the world’s over-population burden. And yet, despite its obvious genre conceits, Downsizing is much closer to Joel Schumacher’s cult farce The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), than such great classic sci-fi melodramas as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), even with a depiction of industrialisation for the shrinking process as a rather clever or often jokey exploitation of scientific developments affecting social progress and political rights.
So, former O.T. specialist and nice-guy Paul (Matt Damon) joins the happy little people in the ultimate sheltered housing estates where the ‘equivalent values’ of individual buying power, after cashing in and selling up, makes any ordinary person newly able to afford a dreamy millionaire lifestyle in the doll-houses of a sprawling toy-town city named ‘Leisure-land’. Creating an entirely dependent off-shoot society and utopian dream, realised in palatial splendour, is magnificently achieved, but is there big trouble in this compacted paradise?
Starting out with its clinical and medical processes, that are detailed enough to worry the rationally sane, never mind the faint-hearted, the down-sizing transition is not without its opponents or abusers. With the likes of Kristen Wigg and Udo Kier headlining the eclectic, and very skilfully composed, supporting cast, the pocket-sized folks here bring all of their normal-sized selfish faults and foibles with them into the what-a-wonderful worldlet.
Class-based habits of excess result in social constraints, and culture clashes, that perturb and humorously disturb newly miniaturised Paul, who finds himself divorced and roundly criticised by noisily entrepreneurial Serbian neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz) for being rather too staid and American but still casually befriended in honourable support for local diversity.
Into this domestic scene comes Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a cleaner with a prosthetic leg and riotously bossy nature. She helps Paul open his mind to all the humanitarian possibilities of slums and socialism, and much amusement might be derived from her no-nonsense impatience as a survivor of grim adversity especially when poor hen-pecked Paul doesn’t really stand a chance against her.
Even before a boat journey to Norway, the movie offers stunning use of scale, and forced perspectives, when actual-size items from the outer world are re-purposed to recall sci-fi TV show Land Of The Giants (1968). The practicality of slum housing (that appears to be a modified plywood crate) built by hand from scraps is a busy place where a large screen TV set becomes a billboard form of news and cinema - and focus of a thriving community for social exiles and victims of routinely cruel foreign powers.
Downsizing explores genre themes, and characters facing changes to lives, resulting from confusing cultural confrontations, but its satire, sitcom, and rom-com connections include many cross-cultural and romantic similarities to A Hologram For The King (2016) wherein Tom Hanks falls for an Arabian lady. This fine nuevo-Swiftian fable finds various workable solutions to seemingly intractable, global problems, even if the outcome means accepting some exclusivity for the sake of diversity.
Is there really one ultimate fate? Is intelligence a survival trait, or is humanity doomed to extinction because of stupidity and greed? It’s true that Downsizing really deserves some sharp criticism for its obvious neglect of great SF opportunities in favour of broadly social comedy but this movie’s engagingly witty mix of disparate elements and episodic charms seems very likely to attract a cult following.