Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Downsizing: LFF Review

Will a crazy high-concept translate into a great movie?

Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz star in this surreal, often brilliant piece of conceptual filmmaking from Alexander Payne.

Stunningly realised...
The former stars as Paul Safranek, an average Joe, living an average Joe life in average Joe America. When Downsizing begins, he’s watching a television broadcast of some very important news: scientists in Norway have figured out how to shrink human beings to be just 5 inches tall. Years later, after meeting an old friend (Jason Sudekis), Paul and his wife (Kirsten Wiig) are well on the track to liquidating their assets and moving out to a tacky, garish compound in the desert known as ‘Leisureland’, in which a miniature Neil Patrick-Harris waltzes around a collapsible mansion explaining to his captive audience just what they have to gain by handing over their well-earned cash.

It’s not often that we see something so bold and revolutionary in its worldbuilding technique, or something nearly as compelling as Downsizing. Payne goes to great lengths to document the transition process – dedicating around 30 or 40 minutes of his runtime to it – in which time that audience was completely engrossed. Reunions, trips, and everyday life become occupied with ‘the small world’ – these 5-inch tall people appearing alongside full-size ones at social events and becoming the life and soul of the party. And then, we begin to witness Paul becoming sucked into this spiral of jealousy – the idea that he’s looking for a neon American dream amidst the tedium of everyday life. The formalities of drinking the Kool-Aid are given even more impressive heft, as every step from turning up to open days, to signing dubious papers (“do you acknowledge that the procedure may result in death?” the Safraneks are asked with a disarmingly sunny disposition by a woman in a lab coat), to actually being shrunk, and getting used to life in the small world.

The full extent of Payne’s ambitions begin to become clearer: Paul’s assets may have been worth $12m when he arrived in Leisureland, but when that money runs out (for reasons that could be considered a spoiler), the realisation begins to dawn that the small world is equally as shit as the big world. There’s poverty, crime, and the same institutional oppression that people left the big world to get away from. What’s more, the practical implications of such a scientific advance phase into the limelight with a sickly hue: governments are shrinking dissidents as a sadistic punishment, there’s a racist undercurrent to Mexican small people, and downsized radicals are sneaking into the big world to aid in terrorism. Paul is forced to work a dead-end job and live in a shitty apartment, just like when he was full-size.

Just like the real world, the saviour of humanity is humanity itself. Christoph Waltz’s Dusan may be a chauvinist asshole, but he’s also a kind man who feels genuine love for his neighbour. Likewise, for all Damon’s bitter, meaningless plastic aspirations, he has a genuine heart of gold which he uses to help those that he comes across. By the end of Downsizing it becomes clear that what we were being asked all along was what it means to be human in the first place.

It’s a remarkable piece of work – committed to its own ludicrous premise in every single way. Is it a dark comedy, a satire, a sci-fi, or a slice of horrific dystopia? I honestly don’t know, and that’s one of it’s greatest strengths. What it is, for sure, is a gigantic treatise on a microcosmic world – an affirmation of the power of humanity, and a timely reminder of all we have to lose. 

Downsizing gets 4 stars!

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