Downsizing is the best sci-fi film of 2017
Alexander Payne thinks small. Though his first two films Citizen Ruth and Election made overtures at broad social topics such as reproductive rights and politics, writer-director Payne’s films are often intimate and darkly-comic character studies with low-stakes plots. Through the strength of his and steadfast writing partner Jim Taylor’s characterization, Payne is well-practiced in the difficult task of making the mundane and the inconsequential feel high-stakes. Chances are, you don’t go into Payne’s 2004 feature Sideways with half the snobbery Paul Giamatti’s Miles Raymond has for wine, but seeing him drink his prized decades-old bottle out of a styrofoam cup cuts deep anyway, after becoming empathetic to his problems and passions. Mr. Payne has become one of Hollywood’s most reliable craftsmen in the area of the quietly-resonant domestic comedy, and if the gilded path of his last few features (The Descendants, Nebraska) was any indication, his newest film could have been more of the same (artfully composed, melancholic, populated with reliable character-actors) and likely would have been met with a significant amount of mainstream critical/awards-show fanfare. Downsizing is not the safe bet Payne could have made.
Starring Matt Damon in his most miraculous doughy dumb-guy turn since The Informant, Downsizing dares to give audiences infinitesimally more than they bargained for out of its deceptively whimsical Honey, I Shrunk The Kids premise. The film depicts a near-future where a scientific process of shrinking humans down to miniature size is arrived at by Nordic scientists as the solution to a litany of problems facing the human race. Once someone is downsized, they produce dramatically less waste, they take up less space, and the cost-of-living allows them to live in luxury all year round in miniature resort-type gated communities. Damon’s wife (a neurotic, yet restrained Kristen Wiig) leaves him at the proverbial altar, deciding not to go through with the irreversible procedure at the last minute, leaving Damon to live alone in his new miniature paradise (dubbed “Leisureland”) and support himself with a job at a call center. This near-immediate shift to the mundane signals a shift back into the comfort zone for Payne, but once Damon crosses paths with a Vietnamese political dissident (shrunk by her government against her will) played by Hong Chau, Payne never ceases to surprise until the credits roll.
Once Damon is in the companionship of Chau, Payne takes us to the slums of Leisureland, where the working-class of the downsized population (pointedly and largely hispanic) live and support those who are unable to work. That an American sci-fi film even once thinks to take its audience to such a place, let alone really base the film around this environment and class delineation is immensely daring, rounding out the world of the film as a fully-alive world which only serves to heighten the disparity of wealth that exists in our normally-proportioned world. In today’s dearth of great science-fiction film, it’s immensely refreshing to find a director who actually remembers the purpose of the genre; to address pressing and current social topics through a fantastical premise, let alone to do so with nuance. Stretching the premise to its logical conclusion, Payne arrives in the apocalyptic third act at the question of whether or not downsizing actually saves the human race, when Chau and Damon visit the pioneers of downsizing themselves in Norway, who are preparing an underground shelter with cultish panache. Damon buys into the ecological hysteria purported by the leaders of the colony just as he bought into downsizing at the beginning of the film, but his attachment to Hong Chau, who wishes to stay in the “real world” and help those left behind in Leisureland derails his plans to venture underground with the crowd.
Here’s where Payne makes things interesting, ideologically-speaking. In narrating the film from Damon’s first-person perspective, Payne doesn’t really spell out for you whether or not Damon should heed the warnings of the Norwegians, subjecting you to a long routine of speeches that could easily be confused for impassioned appeal directly from director to viewer. This sort of playful ambiguity recalls Todd Haynes’s way of portraying the self-help cult in Safe, leaving the audience unsure of where they are meant to stand on the issues being presented to them. In the end, the conclusion that we can at least be certain Damon arrives at is that the human race may very well be doomed to extinction, and that the most responsibility any privileged white guy such as himself has to take up is to simply be nice. The ethical credit of this moral notwithstanding, I couldn’t give you a more fitting message for the state of humanity in 2017 than this one of homely resignation if you paid me. Moreover, anyone who takes this film to be a “white savior” narrative (Damon’s heroic coup de grace is delivering takeout food) after the credits have rolled should have their head examined, and is living evidence of a tone-deaf critical culture that stifles first-rate satirists such as Payne.
Such a criticism would be centered around Damon’s relationship with Chau, though it would overlook the most tender and beautiful aspect of Payne’s support for simple midwestern care for one another. Their romance is indeed predicated on Damon’s background as a workplace occupational therapist, and consequently his ability to care for her prosthetic leg (amputated after a grueling trip overseas to the States stowed away in a TV box), but she’s shown to be the far more intelligent and fatalistically realist of the coupling multiple times throughout the film. She’s also far and away the centerpiece of the movie, giving a joyful and hilarious performance to a character who deserves Chau’s natural skill as a performer, and to who Payne is more than willing to cede the floor to for delightful effect (her crass romantic overture towards Damon in the eleventh hour is my vote for the funniest scene of 2017).
You might not be able to catch Downsizing in theaters by the time these words reach you, which is a shame. Critical reception has been mixed and it’s grossed a pittance of its budget, blending into a larger pattern of financial failure for Paramount in 2017 and likely to be cited as an albatross for greenlighting risky and large-scale original properties within the company for some time to come. However, the film could have the makings of a cult favorite, finding new love some years down the road as one of Payne’s greatest works, and maybe even as a prescient artifact. A film this daringly ambitious and unique deserves to be remembered.