A lot of American films over the past 12-18 months can be read as an indictment of Donald Trump’s presidency and the cultural climate it has created stateside. None, however, goes as straight for the jugular of Trumpian ideology as Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. The premise, cinematically, is nothing new and can be found in many sci-fi films, not least Neill Blomkamp’s Matt Damon starrer Elysium (2013), which sees a spacecraft built for the purpose of taking the wealthy to live ‘off-world’ in a dystopian future, where the earth is one big land-fill, while the poor are left to live in their own filth.
Payne keeps his film grounded, all the way to the floor. Downsizing not only attacks Trump’s climate change denial but also the hedonistic predilections of your average human being.
In the not too distance future, a Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) invents the process of ‘downsizing’, where humans can shrink themselves to a couple of inches tall. Asbjornsen has noble intentions and aspirations to reduce the carbon footprint and the devastating impact that humans have on the planet.
Fast-forward 10 years the phenomenon of ‘getting small’ has crossed the Atlantic. However, Asbjornsen’s virtuous objective has been lost on the common citizen. They are doing it for economic reasons, 100,000 dollars translates to 2 million dollars in ‘Leisure Land’, a purpose-built present day utopia for people who decide to take the irreversible procedure. Struggling to get a mortgage, a worry that will ring true for many in Irish audiences, Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) jump at the idea. They can have the house of their dreams and live in luxury for the rest of their life.
(SPOILER ALERT: Audrey chickens out half way through and Paul doesn’t find out until it is too late.) After the rigorous process, he is left to live alone in Leisure Land. A true altruist, it doesn’t take long for Paul to figure out that life in Leisure Land is vacuous. He quickly realises that the economic and class divide has translated to this white picket fenced mouse cage as a result of poorer countries enforcing downsizing to save money.
Downsizing has been described as ‘high concept’ but Payne never bludgeons us with his message. He delivers it in a humorous and accessible way. The true hero of the piece is a Vietnamese dissident activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Christoph Waltz brings his inherent charm to a supporting role as an ageing hedonist. Downsizing is a film that satirises God-complexes and admirably tries to nudge us all in the right direction. Payne leaves us with a simple act of human kindness in the final scene of this entertaining and thought-provoking film.
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Tom is a film lover from Ireland. He has a Masters in Film Studies from University College Cork and currently works as an English teacher.