The Smaller Picture
'No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision,' wrote the Australian critic and novelist John Baxter, referring to the American director Jack Arnold. There is, indeed, no reason for normal people to have any idea who Arnold was, but for the fact that he was responsible for some of the most vivid and memorable SF and fantasy films of the 1950s – films which are still hugely influential, to judge from the fact that The Shape of Water, currently enjoying thirteen Oscar nominations, seems to owe a distinct debt to Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Alexander Payne's Downsizing likewise seems to have very much been made under the influence of Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man. Can a remake of Tarantula by Werner Herzog be very far off?
Downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a mild-mannered occupational therapist who is as surprised as everyone else when Norwegian scientists announce they have discovered the secret of 'cellular reduction' – a process where living creatures can be permanently and irreversibly shrunk, without suffering any ill-effects in the process. The benefit of this to the planet is an enormous reduction in the resources they consume and the waste they produce. The personal advantage to the shrunken folk is that their money stretches much further, allowing them to enjoy a luxurious standard of living within the sealed communities in which they live.
Encouraged by an old friend, Paul persuades his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to sell up and move down to Leisureland, one of the largest of the communities of small people. All is set fair for them to commence the new existence of their dreams. But, of course, events conspire to sabotage Paul's dream. Though there are new friends to be made in Leisureland (Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau amongst them), it turns out the place has a darker side, one which causes him to question his assumptions about life...
Alexander Payne may not personally have the secret of miniaturisation, but he certainly seems to have figured out how to polarise an audience: Downsizing is one of those films which seems to have received a very lukewarm reception, judging by the critical aggregation sites. Looking a little closer indicates that this is one of those films which people seem to love or hate in pretty much equal numbers.
I can understand why some people might respond negatively to this movie: beyond the fact that it's obviously a science fiction film, it's quite difficult to say with complete certainty what kind of story it is telling. Is it a satire? Is it pure comedy? Is it a drama? Is it something more philosophical? Certainly at times it seems to be all of those things. The lengthy running time is also probably an issue, especially when coupled to the apparent lack of focus: negative reviews of this movie often include words like 'rambling' and 'meandering'.
I have to say that I am in the other camp, and found Downsizing thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing entertainment, not least because of the way it defies easy categorisation, beyond SF. Now, I have to say that as actual serious science fiction the movie is on very shaky grounds. While the script quite sensibly declines to go into the details of just how cellular reduction works, I'm still pretty sure that if you did shrink someone down to roughly 0.03% of their natural size, not only would they have severe difficulty in maintaining their body temperature without constantly snacking, they would also be unable to breathe (their lungs would be unable to process the now relatively-giant air molecules).
Once you get past that, however, this is an impressive and rather commendable attempt at a proper piece of genuine SF. One of the reasons for the unusual structure of the film is that it takes a particular concept – in this case, the notion of human shrinking – and explores it in a relatively systematic and comprehensive way. Just how would the world be changed? The film eschews the action-horror staples generally associated with size-change in SF and thinks in wider terms – how would it affect society? How could the technology be used and abused? (Despots start shrinking dissidents, for instance, who then start trying to enter the USA via some fairly unusual routes.) Once again, the economics as posited by the movie strike me as a little wonky, but I am prepared to cut it some slack: very often, SF ideas in films come with a single metaphor baked in, which the film then laboriously articulates over and over.
Downsizing treats the shrinking process as a piece of technology, rather than a metaphor-made-real, and one of its most drolly amusing sequences is the one in which we see Damon being processed – exactly how the mass-miniaturisation of new residents takes place has been worked out in some detail. The question is rather one of what the process reveals or illuminates about the human condition and our society in general, and the shift in perspective is enough to make one see the situation inside the shrunken colony in a new light. There are some striking moments of revelation, the heady stuff of proper science fiction.
In the end, though, the film seems to me to be mainly about the nature of life and particularly what it means to live well. Several possibilities seem to be offered in the course of the film – does a good life mean the absence of every little inconvenience and problem? Is it the luxurious materialistic hedonism promised by Leisureland's advertising programme? Is it in taking a longer view and acting in the best interests of humanity as a whole? In the course of the film, the different characters make their choices, and I can easily imagine viewers emerging with differing opinions as to who is right and who is wrong.
The film is well-realised, with some striking visual moments, and Matt Damon gives a quietly impressive performance as something of an everyman, someone struggling to find his place in the world. The support from the likes of Waltz, Chau, and Udo Kier is also good. The film has a consistent inventiveness which means it is frequently thought-provoking and occasionally very funny. As you can tell, I was rather charmed by it, and willing to go along on the journey even when it sometimes seemed unclear where the film was taking me. There is much here to enjoy and think about; this is one of the best SF movies of recent years.