“Downsizing”

 

            Social satire is always a bit tricky.  Do you do a broad farce, where nobody could possibly miss the inferences?  If so, you give up any hope of subtlety.  Or, do you fashion a believable “alternative” kind of narrative that everyone will then have to draw their own conclusions?  In that case, you risk people missing your main point, or perhaps assuming implications which you didn't intend.  Either way, a satire has a tendency to develop a life of its own.  Especially if the characters don't overplay their roles.

            Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a middle-class guy living in the Heartland (Omaha, Nebraska, which is geographically as well as politically as far from the East Coast or the West Coast as possible). He works as an Occupational Therapist, because when he was pre-med his Mom got sick, and he moved back home to take care of her.  Ten years later, his Mom's gone, but he still lives in the same house with his wife Audreay (Kristen Wiig), and he brings home a lot of take-out food for her, as well.  They'd love to upscale, but they just can't afford it.  They have some vague notion of global warming, but they're not activists or anything.  In fact, they're pretty much the epitome of an “ordinary” couple, usually only casually interested in world events, until the one that really caught their attention:  Downsizing.

            It seems that an eminent Norwegian scientist has actually perfected the process that would shrink living things to a fraction of their normal size, with no apparent reduction in viability.  And yes, they've tried this on humans, and it's worked spectacularly, with some of the volunteers even having “little” children.  Needless to say, this creates a great stir all over the globe.  Think of the possibilities of ecological conservation!  Just consider how many fewer resources we would need to consume!

            The Safraneks decide that this is their big chance to upgrade their lifestyle, because their converted assets would be sufficient for them to live in a little mansion, complete with all the amenities.  They're nervous, but excited, as they agree to undergo the radical, irreversible medical procedure (where they have to remove your teeth beforehand and replace them with caps afterwards).

            The Good News: the procedure is a success.  The Bad News:  Paul finds that there are still some ennui issues, even living in the “ideal” community, as he continues to be under-employed.  He's annoyed with his noisy neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who seems to have found ways to manipulate the system to generate illicit trade in luxury goods (new world, same corruption).  They meet Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an early “test case” who suffered a lower leg amputation, and is now cleaning houses.  But together they journey to the original Norwegian “little village,” where they learn that the polar ice caps are melting at such an alarming rate that it's time to enter a newly-constructed isolated dome, where, like Noah's ark, the world's only human survivors will try to avoid the devastation awaiting everyone else.

            Yes, the issues are both large (ecology, consumerism, the politics of resource distribution) and small (personal ambition, greed, and the fragility of altruism).  Matt Damon makes for a believable “Everyman” (despite his boyish good looks), because he seems so genuine, even when he's mad. 

            At the end of the day, of course, any one person's fulfillment wishes will intersect with everyone else's.  A looming cataclysm doesn't alter the stakes, it just provides more urgency for the issues.  Which is precisely the point.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association