A fantastic concept which struggles slightly in its execution, Alexander Payne's latest offering sees the filmmaker pushing the boat out further than ever before.
It’s almost a given these days in Hollywood that most directors will eventually work their way up the rungs of the business to direct a big budget sci-fi and/or action movie. Such is the way the system works that the hot talent gets their promotion after working away in the Indies and lower budgeted projects, it’s a 50/50 success rate, however, with some losing control to the big dog studios and others translating their success up to a higher degree without a hitch. But as successful as some directors may be, there are those who choose to chip away with their own creations instead of leaping onto someone else’s script or project. Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) is one such auteur who works to his own sensibilities, he’s a man whose projects are pretty much guaranteed awards buzz and always attract top talent. But Payne has pushed the boat out with his latest – Downsizing – an original sci-fi movie which seeks to take a satirical and unique approach to the Armageddon obsessed 21st century media mentality.
With Downsizing, Payne’s resolution to the Earth’s inevitable self-destruction is a rather simple one; shrink everyone. Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek make the decision to undergo a new operation, the titular “downsizing” procedure, in which they will be shrunk to just five inches tall and live in a miniature city for those like them. The benefits of downsizing are significant in the future; its helps save the planet by reducing energy and fuel consumption, it’s more economically beneficial for those who shrink themselves as their money’s worth sky rockets, and it ultimately will help with the world’s overpopulation problem.
If that synopsis intrigues you then you’re not alone, Downsizing offers a wholly unique and fresh take on the end of the world. Interstellar envisions a future in which famine threatens our existence, Children of Men offers a world in which women are rendered infertile, Downsizing commercialises our future and provides a satirical take on our fate. It’s a brilliantly crafted world and concept from Payne who skewers our consumerist mentality and racial views through this backdrop of downsizing, the film’s first act is truly magnificent as it establishes this world and Paul’s place in it. Damon provides sufficient work as Paul, whilst his performance may not be among his best, it’s reliably solid work. Christoph Waltz as his wacky playboy neighbour Dusan lights up the screen, as the Austrian actor gets to ham it up to his heart’s content, Dusan’s friend Joris (Udo Kier) counters him as the bizarre straight man (even if it seems that this was a role written for Christopher Walken…). The film’s wildcard, however, proves to be Hong Chau who continues Downsizing‘s trend of eccentric individuals, her Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will, is frustratingly annoying and unsubtle at times but manages to nail most of her comedic moments and even wrings out a few tears.
But Downsizing falters as it becomes a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie. The first act, as mentioned, is hilarious, intelligent and intriguing, the shrinking sequence itself proving to be one of the film’s strongest parts and the world building at hand is fantastic. But as the film progresses, it becomes less about this world and more about Paul’s endeavours, unfortunately this is a sharp left turn and is much less interesting. We don’t get to experience the story of this future, we experience Paul’s story within this future and it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Romance, philosophy, humanitarian messages, sci-fi existentialism, Downsizing loses itself in all its ambition.
But it crosses the line, perhaps not at the top of the podium, but certainly in a strong showing. Such films live and die with their concepts and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing soars with its idea, experiences severe turbulence, before landing relatively smoothly. Credit must go to the cast, the writing (which is truly hilarious, featuring one of the year’s best visual gags and some fantastic one liners) and Payne’s vision, even if he loses the string of his labyrinth once or twice.
Downsizing (2017), directed by Alexander Payne, showed as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival, further information can be found here.