What would happen if human beings developed the technology to shrink themselves down to a fraction of their original size? In Alexander Payne’s bizarre sci-fi comedy Downsizing, scientist Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgård) discovers “cellular miniaturization,” which allows regular-size folks to be shrunk down to five inches. This way, they can go live in communities specifically built for the miniaturized, where they would be able to afford homes and lifestyles beyond their wildest dreams -- everything costs less when you “get small,” which is a great way to get out of debt.
The film’s science also postulates that “getting small” helps to drastically reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, since small people use fewer resources and create less waste. Sounds like a win-win-win situation: Participants swap financial woes for a luxe lifestyle, help save the planet, and get a big tax break from the government on top of that…as long as they’re okay with the whole “irreversible, potentially dangerous, elective medical procedure” thing.
Enter Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist plagued by ennui and debt who can’t afford to give his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) the life that she deserves. After a perfunctory amount of research and a visit to ritzy Leisuretown, a “small” community located in a mall-type structure, Safranek decides that downsizing is the way to go. Although Audrey is clearly hesitant, the couple decide to go through with the process and agree to liquidate their assets and eschew their lives as full-size people. Things take a turn for the devastating when Safranek awakens after his procedure and finds that Audrey backed out at the last minute, leaving him totally alone and directionless in a new place. Lucky for him, his upstairs neighbor is Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), an extroverted Eastern European party boy; Mirkovic, in turn, introduces him to Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee and amputee whose presence proves integral to Safranek’s growth as a person.
The sci-fi ideas in the film are fascinating, as is the brief exploration of the socioeconomic and environmental implications of a world where “getting small” is an option. However, the movie tries desperately to reconcile these grand-scale concepts with the shaky, satirical parable it wants to tell, and it ultimately fails. The characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional, and the connections between them feel forced; Mirkovic, for example, is completely shallow and contributes little to the actual story -- he’s just there to give Christoph Waltz a chance to join the cast. Tran is by far the most interesting and well-developed character in the film, and while it’s refreshing to see a non-white woman with a disability as a love interest, her relationship with Safranek is awkward and their chemistry is woefully lacking.
The film’s tone changes so frequently that the humor feels disingenuous and the moments of seriousness are pedantic and eye-roll inducing. Plus, there are a handful of gaping plot holes and incongruities within the movie’s backstory that can’t even be excused by the suspension of disbelief afforded by a sci-fi flick. The effects are cool at times, particularly during nature scenes (including one in which several shrunken folks take a boat ride down a Norwegian fjord), but they aren’t cool enough to make up for the shortcomings of the film. Overall, this feels like an unfinished project with some fascinating ideas that were never really fleshed out.