Downsizing: An epic satire
Alexander Payne attempts to explore the complex through one very ingenious idea. Some might marvel at its mastery, while others might brand it overambitious. Truth be told, it's a bit of both.
Alexander Payne's Downsizing is a hugely ambitious attempt, to say the least. And while I feel this 135-minute passion project of his doesn't quite match up to the brilliance of Election (1999) and The Descendants (2011), he deserves credit for the sheer scale at which the film operates. Downsizing starts off with an ingenious idea: a near-future humankind has achieved a scientific breakthrough that allows for cellular miniaturisation (downsizing, in common parlance). If a person opts for it, the process converts a full-sized human being into a five-inch version of himself or herself. There are seemingly no physiological side-effects to downsizing. The only catch is that it is irreversible; once you become small, there is no way of going back to your original state. The primary benefit of downsizing (the one that is marketed by its creators, that is) is to save the planet from environmental degradation - small people equals less waste, less consumption, and so on.
Payne's sprawling canvas of a satire attempts to critique human behaviour in myriad ways. The film is a social commentary on class, on privilege, on the unrestrained accumulation of wealth, on mass consumption, and on the injustice perpetrated by one set of human beings on another. In scope, Downsizing reminded me of another brilliant science fiction attempt by the name of Mr Nobody. Though very different on the surface, the concept of choice plays a major role in both films. Mr Nobody, however, deals with the exploration of its big existential questions in a superior manner.
Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Director: Alexander Payne
Payne often exercises great creative control over most of his productions. If his writing and his direction are anything to go by up till now, there is no doubt he is a master in the making. The shots he uses in Downsizing are indeed a sight to behold. His grand vision of a constantly evolving, flawed world, takes shape in the images he brings to screen. The film is by no means a masterpiece, though. Interesting and ingenious, without doubt, but the final product feels as if he went a little too wide with the storytelling. It takes a fine filmmaker to shoulder such risks, so I will give him full marks for the back-breaking effort. Another commendable aspect about the man's cinematic creations is that they rarely attempt to explore the same themes; each of his projects has something new to showcase. This may not always lead to content audiences, but it takes true artistic courage to keep from being pigeon-holed into some box or other.
Superior character development (thanks to some remarkable writing) is one of the standouts of Downsizing. Hong Chau's acting, in particular (she plays an impoverished Vietnamese activist who makes Damon's character recognise his true purpose in life), lends a deep sensitivity to Alexander Payne's artistic vision. The film trudges along in the first forty-odd minutes, with Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig struggling with the dilemma of their impending decision, but it is only after the arrival of Christoph Waltz that the plot gets a shot in the arm. The main criticism I level against Downsizing is that it attempts to say too many things in its available time frame. Granted, exploring the personal, the social, the environmental, and the existential, all at once, is no mean task, but Payne gets too ambitious in the process of execution. The moving scenes towards the end provide a sense of much depth to the narrative, but they also steer the story on a more predictable course.
Downsizing is one of those films that, if you get lost in its beautiful imagery and ingenious storytelling, has the power to work wonders. It is an idea that makes you think long and hard about the state of the world we live in. Patience is perhaps the key when viewing such a thorough exploration of complex subjects. Like it or dislike it, you cannot deny a meticulous vision taking shape. But it goes without saying that it may not be for everyone.