BFI LFF: Downsizing (2017)

Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is a fantasy satire in microcosm on life, the universe and everything.

It's a Small World

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

What a fantastic (in both senses) premise. As the planet sinks under the weight of overpopulation, public-spirited Norwegian scientists discover that they can successfully shrink people to a two-thousandth of their normal size, that is, around five inches high. That way they take up less room, consume fewer resources and generate less waste. And a plus for the inhabitants of these miniaturised communities that spring up around the globe is that as well as feeling they’re helping to save the planet, their finances immediately grow by 2000% and they become dollar millionaires, living the good life in their tiny gated communities.

Alexander Payne’s film (in the sharpest possible contrast to his black and white family drama Nebraska), shows us the detail of how this ‘cellular reduction’ procedure is done on Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who is doing this with his wife (Kristen Wiig) to appease her desire to buy a bigger house. They can’t afford one in the normal-sized world but in miniature they’ll be able to afford a mansion. Taking place under strict medical conditions, once completed the miniaturised customers are so small that nurses scoop them up from their trolleys with what looks like a fish slice.

But not everything goes to plan for Paul. Downsizing starts as if it’s going to be a social satire along the lines of The Truman Show, raising issues of discrimination against people who are ‘different’, and how these tiny people’s needs are catered for in the outside world, with the Leisureland community of Paul’s new home as a microcosm of America. It does so to an extent, as Paul discovers Leisureland’s hidden underbelly of poor people crammed into tenements and living on food handouts when he gets to know a one-legged Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau) who was miniaturised against her will. And his life changes when he goes to one of the wild Eurotrash parties hosted by the Serbian owner of the flat above him (seedily persuasive Christoph Waltz) and his sidekick, mysterious sea captain of a miniature ship (Udo Keir). And then the film changes course into ecology and the global effects of climate change and the preservation of the human race in the face of imminent environmental catastrophe where Payne’s fantastic premise becomes almost irrelevant.

Downsizing starts at a fantastic pace, it looks good and the concept is intriguing but ultimately it loses its way.

Downsizing screens at the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 13, 14 and 15 October 2017 and is released on 19 January 2018 in the UK.

BFI London Film Festival 2017

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