One of those films that looked interesting but was not immediately on my “must-see” list, Downsizing pleasantly surprised me in how entertaining and thought-provoking it is. Similar to The Martian, it takes a serious approach to science fiction and presents a world very eerily close to our own, but for a few differences. (Yes, it also stars Matt Damon – that’s probably why I so readily made the connection.) The fact that it this story takes place in an alternate future that is very relatable makes it unsettling to watch, but also leaves us with a feeling of hope. Escapism, this is not.
The basic premise of this film is that a scientist discovers a way to safely miniaturize all organic matter – reducing humans to the size of miniature dolls. (Think a one-inch to one-foot ratio.) The ultimate goal behind this initiative is to reduce environmental footprints and waste; however, once the technology becomes widespread, its uses expand to cover other needs as well. There are a noble few who still have the goal of saving humanity, but the majority “downsize” for personal reasons. One of which is simply wealth – the cost of living for a miniature person is much less than a normal-sized person, so many are lured in with the promise of being able to live a life of luxury in a protected environment.
There are two main plots to this film. The first plot centres on Matt Damon’s character, Paul. He is an “average American” from Nebraska who seems to be in his mid- to late thirties for most of the film. His life didn’t go as planned for many reasons (mostly beyond his control) and he sees the opportunity to downsize as bringing a fresh start for him and his wife. He is also in favour of helping the planet. His character is genuine, optimistic, kind, and unfortunately painted as a loser in a world of wealth, excess, and selfishness. He discovers that his problems do not go away in his new, miniature life. However, he slowly learns to find his place and new meaning.
The second plot is about the world at large and how it is heading for environmental disaster. There are lots of short scenes where characters explore ideas about downsizing and both the good and bad effects that it has. We see technology adapt to accept an ever-growing population of “small” people, ordinary people musing about how the economy is being wrecked, and see that downsizing doesn’t result in everyone being able to live lives of luxury. The technology is used to control political dissidents and it is implied that it is also used to control poverty, petty criminals, and anyone else that gets in the way of governments or corporations. The wealthy community that Paul moves into, he later discovers, is serviced by and surrounded by a giant miniature slum.
I found that this film raised a lot of questions, but purposely left us to answer them ourselves. Did we think that the writers were correct in how such a world would play out? Did we share the scientists’ sense of both hope and dread? Would we go ahead and leave behind our old lives for a chance to live in luxury? A chance to save the planet? A chance to help ourselves?
And how would we help ourselves? Is being rich helpful? For some, it undoubtedly is. Is having meaningful work helpful? Is helping others helpful? Is helping the environment helpful? And are we doing these things just to help ourselves, or for something more?
Paul is shown to be a hardworking person who does a lot of drudgery, but genuinely wants to do things for others. He does not start off the film living a life of glamour, ease, and luxury; he does not end up living such a life at the end of the film, either. Why? Because that is not the type of life that he finds meaningful. He is, by nature, not a very selfish person. In fact, it is when he acts selfishly that he most often loses out. That isn’t to say that one should never think about themselves, but rather that we need to evaluate what a good life is. Other characters in the film who are much more selfish are not portrayed negatively, but merely making different choices.
I strongly recommend this film. It is entertaining, but it is not a light-hearted comedy. Nor is there a big conspiracy or evil corporation. There are no great battles. This is a film that shows humanity as it is, has been, and could be. It is art first.