Written by Kate Bush.
Prejudice, equality, greed, sustainability, contentment: these are all concepts director Alexander Payne tried to capture in his 2017 film, “Downsizing.” Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist displeased with his life and, ultimately, himself. In a pursuit of happiness, he volunteers to be ‘downsized’ – shrunken down to 5 centimeters tall – in a scientific Human Scale and Sustainability endeavor that claims to be both his and the Earth’s salvation.
The film’s beginning scenes promise to satirize humanity’s persistent desire to have more, be more; the scientific breakthrough designed to reduce our carbon footprint was quickly turned into a glamorous lifestyle choice, luxurious and obligation-free. As Jason Sudekis’ character, Dave, explains, downsizing is “about saving yourself, not the environment.”
By the end, though, it seemed that Payne had a similar desire for his movie. “Downsizing” wanted to tackle countless issues of the human condition, an aspiration which resulted in none of them getting across.
Structurally (as well as narratively and thematically), “Downsizing” is three separate movies. The aforementioned one details a duality between greed and preservation, but is quickly abandoned in a time-stamped transition – “Ten Years Later” – for the second story: Paul cleaning houses on behalf of a maid he pities but slowly falls in love with, which is quickly abandoned for the third story: Paul traveling to Norway for the end of the world. The issue of ‘greed’ became ‘the inevitability of our doom’ and then a reminder of, ‘oh, this was actually a movie about the environment.’
The vessel of “Downsizing” erraticism throughout all three stories was its aloof main character. In the first story, Paul’s downsizing process relies heavily on his wife’s wishes: a nicer house and more money. In the second story, Paul is bossed around by an authoritative younger woman. In the third, his friends choose for him to travel abroad to Norway’s underground arc for small people during the end of the world. Despite not being happy with himself in the beginning, Paul never changed. He never actively participated in his own story, which forced the story to compensate in irrational ways. When the character’s answer is always ‘yes,’ nothing is learned.
“Downsizing” successfully introduced many grandiose ideas, but its biggest flaw is that it failed to heed its own warning: focus on the little things.