Although the latest film from American big-screen satirist Alexander Payne (Election, Nebraska) has been in the works for more than a decade, it seems like an episode of recent technology-horror TV series Black Mirror. What if a miniaturization process could scale us down to less than ‘1/2000th’ of our fully-fledged selves, reducing our cost of living and eco-footprint in one shrinking swoop?
The result is less a Swiftian satire and more a wry, contemplative drama about one MidWesterner bursting his bubble of insular semi-comfort. The sci-fi premise is a launching pad for this reduced man’s eventual maturity and his gradual discovery of greater responsibilities.
Downsizing slips, subcutaneously, from feeling the pain to feeling the pinch and back again. Soon after Norwegian researchers unveil their scientific shrink-through, we meet up in Omaha with Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), administering an injection to his mother, afflicted with fibromyalgia.
Years later, Paul, an occupational therapist at a meat-processing plant, and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) still can’t afford a spacious home, so they decide to go to the “other side”—the little big-time life in New Mexico’s Leisureland. It’s a domed-off community for the newly shrunk and newly rich (expenses are reduced, so personal wealth’s vastly increased).
Paul acutely feels the pain himself when his wife backs out at the last minute, leaving him so small and alone. His hapless decency finds a new direction, though, when he meets a former Vietnamese dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), working as a cleaner amid the early-morning debris of a party thrown by his neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz).
Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor don’t condemn Dusan’s profiteering, grinning playboy, but obliquely play him off against Ngoc’s pragmatic amputee, taking pain and suffering in her constant, hobbling stride. There’s no white-saviour-ing, but a pulsing sense of white obligation as Paul’s drawn into a world beyond his too-safe, too-secure, too-narcotized own. His ultimate dilemma—big-picture solution versus small-picture helping—is a question of long-term idealism versus short-term care.
By making the political such a sharply zig-zagging personal quest, Downsizing quietly, impressively upgrades the social-issues drama for our troubled times.