In post-apocalyptic stories, the end of the world has usually come about suddenly and dramatically – a nuclear war, perhaps, or a zombie plague, or a robot uprising.
Turn on the news any day of the week, though, and it can start to feel like we’ve already begun our slow, inexorable decline. Like we’re in a pre-apocalyptic age, even if we haven’t quite grasped it yet.
In Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne, scientists have come up with a radical solution that has the potential to save the world: Shrink humans down to approximately 0.0367% of their body mass, greatly reducing our carbon footprint.
These newly tiny people, meanwhile, get to enjoy luxury lifestyles on miniscule budgets — a dollar goes a lot further when an entire mansion can fit on top of a kitchen counter. Downsizing is the solution to our overpopulation problem and our growing disillusionment with the American dream, all in one fell swoop.
One couple lured in by that promise is Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), who’ve come to feel stuck in life — saddled with jobs they don’t like and a house they can’t afford to trade in just yet. Downsizing looks like a chance to start fresh, and they’ve got their eye on LeisureLand, which is basically exactly what it sounds like. Once they get there, it’ll all be sunshine and rainbows.
It isn’t, of course. Downsizing can make people smaller, but it can’t change our essential natures. All the societal problems that plagued the normal-sized world just transfer over to the downsized one. Utopias like LeisureLand are still made possible by the exploitation of poor and non-white workers. Cruel leaders find new ways to wield downsizing as a weapon. And Paul, poor pathetic Paul, finds himself in the middle of a mid-life crisis.
Downsizing is a strange movie. Every time you think you’ve figured it out, it changes shape again. In its first act, as the concept of downsizing is introduced and Paul and Audrey prepare for their new lives, the film has an intriguing edge of desperation. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we’re trying so hard to feel fine.
Once Downsizing actually moves into LeisureLand, though, and into Paul’s new life as a tiny person, it becomes a more conventional story about a 40-something man taking stock of his life and trying to forge a new way forward, with a couple of new friends including a louche Serbian smuggler (Christoph Waltz, charming as hell) and Vietnamese political dissident (Hong Chau, making the very best of a shakily conceived character).
Then the pre-apocalyptic vibe creeps back in. The question that Downsizing ultimately seems to settle on is: What’s a sad-sack, middle-class white man to do when he’s facing down the imminent (if gradual) destruction of humanity?
I won’t spoil what happens, because part of the experience of Downsizing is watching for yourself as the story shifts and twists. I will say that the note it ends on feels too pat to be satisfying, after all we’ve been through with Paul. As a filmmaker’s ambitious attempt to wrestle with big, answerable questions, Downsizing is an interesting artifact. As an actual movie, though, it’s an awkward misfire.