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Review: Downsizing (2017)

Downsizing (2017)

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Premise: In the near future, scientists develop technology to shrink people and other living things to a fraction of their size. The procedure comes with enormous financial benefits and a cash strapped couple (Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig) decide to make a life change.

What Works: Downsizing is a concept driven movie and it is built around a brilliant idea. In response to climate change and over population, scientists devise a way for people to shrink themselves and thereby live on a fraction of the resources they would need at full size. Downsizing is at its best when the film focuses on that idea. For people living in the industrialized world, the downsizing procedure has attractive financial benefits. Even a couple with modest savings can afford to live very comfortably and the procedure spurs the creation of downsized communities that resemble resorts. The new communities require miniaturized supplies and so whole new economies are born while the full sized world experiences a drain in personnel and taxable income. Downsizing begins as one kind of film and then veers off in other directions. This is actually to the movie’s benefit as it goes to unexpected places and becomes a more complex story. This isn’t a dystopian story like Logan Run, in which the idealized sheen belies crass exploitation, but the world of Downsizing is gradually revealed to be more difficult than the life of leisure that attracts people in the first place. This movie is a work of social satire and on that score it mostly works with some smart ideas about how wealth depends upon a certain amount of inequality and exploitation. Downsizing has a standout performance by Hong Chau as a Vietnamese political dissident who gets involved with Matt Damon’s character. She is the most interesting person in the film as she has the greatest depth and range of anyone in the movie. 

What Doesn’t: Downsizing is not the movie that many people might expect based upon the film’s trailer and other marketing materials. The story begins as one thing and ends as quite another but more importantly Downsizing does not adhere to a familiar Hollywood template. That is mostly to the movie’s credit but it’s likely to alienate some members of the audience who will feel misled. Downsizing does not take full advantage of its premise. In fact, there are stretches in this movie in which the miniature world disappears. That normalization may be part of the point, that the state of things is often taken for granted, and even radical change eventually disappears into everyday mundanity. But Downsizing leaves some of the most interesting implications of its concept unexplored in favor of focusing on an impending ecological apocalypse. It hits that message pretty hard. The filmmakers don’t compromise the story for the sake of the message but they do let that message dictate the movie’s direction. By far the weakest element of Downsizing is the lead character played by Matt Damon. He’s just not that interesting. Damon’s character is made sympathetic early on but he is a passive observer with a bland personality.

Bottom Line: Downsizing is a good idea with a mixed execution. The story goes in some unexpected and interesting directions but this isn’t the biting social satire that it could be. The movie has enough to recommend it but it is ultimately underwhelming.

Episode: #680 (December 31, 2017)