Nick has a deep interest in film and cinema, dreaming of one day being a successful film pundit.
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Downsizing is a science fiction drama directed by Alexander Payne, starring Matt Damon, Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz. The film shows us a fictional version of Earth, where scientists have discovered a means to shrink human beings down to a fraction of their size, a solution to the growing problem of world overpopulation. Paul Safranek (Damon) is a man who, along with his wife (played by Kristen Wiig), finds himself in financial difficulties. When Paul finds out that undergoing the shrinking process (a.k.a. ‘downsizing’) would allow him to multiply his current savings and become rich, he and his wife decide to change their lives by going through the downsizing treatment. But as we might expect, all is not rosy in the small city, as Paul is shrunk down and immediately has to face a huge problem. One which sets the rest of the film in motion.
In December 2017, The American National Board of Review named Downsizing one of 2017’s best films. That itself is a huge title to hold, and with Oscar-winning writer/director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) on board, Matt Damon as the lead is simply the cherry on top of this potential-flavoured movie cake. So, although the punchline seems pretty obvious at this point, do the film’s little characters make a big impact, or are the film’s quality moments in short supply?
Fortunately, the film is somewhat saved by its ever-intriguing premise and a scene-stealing performance by Hong Chau, who is easily the star of the show. Unfortunately and ironically, Downsizing suffers from being too big of a film. The film has a lot of fat. A lot of unnecessary scenes and dialogue that hurts the pacing, and really doesn’t add much to the plot. The plot itself changes dramatically at one point, as its overambitious nature hampers the viewing experience. Where the film had an excellent opportunity to further explore the ethics and economics behind a unique concept, it focussed instead on extra world-building in its final act, where most of the issues exist. Is it a terrible, completely unenjoyable film? No. Does it deserve to be on any ‘Top Movies of 2017’ list? Probably not.
The Little Things in Life
The strongest and most entertaining parts of the film are any time Hong Chau appears on screen. Chau plays a crippled refugee that has to work as a cleaner in Leisureland (The small people city), where the Vietnamese-American actress shows us how she garnered her supporting actress nominations. Equipped with a piercing voice and personality, she is the source of not only the most heartfelt moments of the film, but also the most hilarious. Though Matt Damon is as likeable as ever, even he is often overshadowed by his co-star’s energy. And though I cannot assess the authenticity of Hong Chau’s Vietnamese accent and speech, her presence alone in the cast of a Hollywood movie is a win for diversity.
Downsizing asks some interesting questions, most notably: how will downsizing some people affect the others who don’t downsize? Also, is it ethical to make such a permanent change to someone’s life, and what effect would downsizing have on the economy and environment? There’s so much to explore around this concept, beyond the expected ‘look I’m small, and the things I used to think were small are now huge!’. The film could definitely have improved by constantly anchoring itself to these questions. Alas, the depth we expect to be there is not.
Pace and structure are two aspects of Downsizing that could really have used some improving. For one thing, it takes quite a while before Matt Damon is finally shrunk down to five inches, after which a certain character makes a plot-defining decision that, though understandable, isn’t very convincing. And even after that, there’s an entire sequence at a party which really could have been cut out, as it caused the film to drag, and, quite honestly, bore. Christoph Waltz puts in a good shift, though I’ve seen enough Christoph Waltz movies to know that he’s sort of doing his shtick again. Once Hong Chau is finally introduced, the film improves significantly and the pace picks up. But when we enter the final act, the film chooses to go to a completely different environment, with a completely different set of conflicts that alters the tone of the film in a jarring way. It’s like watching a different movie in the same universe. And with the limited runtime we have, that’s not a good thing.
Downsizing is a disappointing film with some redeeming qualities. As far as the execution of unique concepts go, it might fall more into the In Time bracket rather than occupying the space of sci-fi films like Looper and Her. Hong Chau was a standout, and Alexander Payne stumbles. I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone other than fans who want to support the people involved. Needless to say, I’m not big on Downsizing. But I thank the production team for their efforts, and hope that the relevant individuals can learn as much as they can from this misstep.
Overall Score: 5.9/10