Downsizing is an audacious but uneven sci-fi fable about an impending environmental apocalypse

It’s kind of amazing it even exists.

The premise of Downsizing is a great one: Scientists in Norway come up with the technology to reduce humans safely and efficiently down to about the size of your thumb. Small people, the thinking goes, generate less waste, consume fewer resources, and take up less space than their full-sized counterparts. On an overpopulated planet that’s becoming overrun with waste, more and more expensive, and gradually less inhabitable, downsizing could be what saves everyone.

The unintended consequences will quickly present themselves to the average viewer: What happens if everyone shrinks down in a world that is still very much full-sized? Doesn’t a world overrun by, say, regular-sized house pets become Jurassic Park? Wouldn’t the economic benefits eventually disappear?

But Downsizing is science fiction, a genre in which the concepts are often great but the corresponding stories often have to wave their hands around a bit to keep you from seeing the plot holes. In this case, the hand-waving comes by way of a long, meandering story that seems to take a sharp left turn in several spots. By the end of Downsizing you can barely remember where you began.

I’m not convinced that’s a strike against the movie. It seems to be imitating the journey of its protagonist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who is a blandly friendly fellow on the road to self-discovery. Downsizing — directed by Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways) from a screenplay he wrote with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor — likely would have benefited from a bit more vision and control, some more streamlined shifts in focus. But its unwieldy, occasionally baffling progression has a charm all its own.

Downsizing boasts a terrific sci-fi premise

After the Norwegian scientists invent the shrinking technology, a pilot group of 36 people bravely shrink themselves and live successfully in a colony for a few years, and then their existence is announced to the public. As with many socially conscious endeavors in more affluent parts of the world, downsizing carries benefits for the planet as a whole, but more benefits for the people who actually downsize. For one thing, there’s a kind of status that comes along with the process, signaling that everyone who participates is brave, a pioneer, an adventurer.

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon in DownsizingParamount Pictures
Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon in Downsizing.

But the biggest, most immediate benefit to those who downsize has to do with how much more inexpensive it is to live in the small world. Their full-sized assets, once liquidated, make them wealthier than they’d ever been in the real world. People who once were barely getting by in a small home now can afford a big, stylish McMansion in a gated community called Leisureland; “small-only” and corporate-owned, the place has zero crime and there’s plenty of time for pleasurable pursuits.

Not everyone jumps at the opportunity — some people are too poor to even afford the downsizing, some have medical issues (such as replacement hips) that make it impossible, and some just don’t want to make such a drastic change to their bodies and lives. But for those who can, it seems like an exciting, viable thing to do.

Choosing to downsize is essentially like hitting the reset button, and it’s something that Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) start looking into after two of their high school classmates (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe) turn up small at a reunion. It’s a way of shedding your mortgage, your dead-end job, and your old life, and to start out fresh in a community of people who are just like you.

Things do not go as planned. Through a series of unfortunate events, Paul finds himself living in a Leisureland one-bedroom apartment below a loud neighbor named Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and his buddy Konrad (Udo Kier), two international playboys who throw a lot of parties. At one of those parties, Paul meets a Vietnamese refugee named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) who stowed away in a TV after being shrunk against her will in a prison for dissidents. (Turns out authoritarian governments have their own ideas about how to use the shrinking technology.)

Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau in DownsizingGeorge Kraychyk/Paramount Pictures
Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau in Downsizing.

Paul becomes fascinated with Ngoc Lan, who lives outside the wall of Leisureland in a tenement-style building that’s home to a lot of immigrants and poor small people. (The metaphors in Downsizing are not particularly subtle.) Ngoc Lan spends her time doing all kinds of things, but especially making sure that the old, sick, and hungry among her neighbors get some kind of care, as best she can. She represents something Paul hasn’t experienced in a long time: passion and drive, and a sense of responsibility.

But then one day, both Dusan and Ngoc Lan get calls from the man who invented downsizing. He wants them to come see him in Norway. Paul, who’s fallen pretty hard for Ngoc Lan, tags along, and what the trio discovers there is that the act of downsizing itself, corporate-style, isn’t the solution to what ails the planet.

And they’re offered another way to save themselves from the coming apocalypse.

The overstuffed Downsizing doesn’t totally work, but when it does, it’s fascinating

Downsizing is among several movies this year that posit the apocalypse in the form of imminent environmental catastrophe (Mother! is another, if Darren Aronofsky is to believed). It is, then, a kind of pre-apocalyptic movie crossed with science fiction, and on that level it succeeds out of sheer weirdness. The fun of this kind of story is in the world-building, and though the world that Downsizing starts with is, ahem, small, it telescopes outward over the course of the film. Along with Paul, we slowly take in the various consequences and repercussions of the downsizing effort.

If you can settle in and just go with it, there’s pleasure in watching the whole thing unfold. At its best, it does what stories like this should do: present various social issues like — overconsumption, bias, willful blindness to the world’s problems — in a new context, so that we see them afresh.

Downsizing isn’t perfect, though, and while it seems at times like the film is making a feint toward satire, it never really gets there. There are a lot of ideas in the mix, but the film lacks the follow-through to give it real punch.

Hong Chau and Matt Damon in DownsizingParamount Pictures
Hong Chau and Matt Damon in Downsizing

Since Downsizing’s festival run, there’s been criticism of Chau’s character, who has a heavy accent that is played (quite a lot) for laughs. (More generally, Payne has been criticized in the past by those who feel his movies are condescending toward their characters.) Perhaps more disappointing, however, is that Paul, played by Damon (who has been repeatedly shoving his foot into his mouth during the press tour for the film), is just not a terribly compelling or interesting person. That’s part of the idea, of course — his main trait is passivity — but it doesn’t make for a very good protagonist, especially next to Chau’s character, who is a pragmatic spitfire, and Waltz’s, who is an unmitigated weirdo.

I can’t exactly recommend Downsizing. It’s hard to say whether it’s successful in its aims, since it’s not entirely clear what those aims are. But while I watched, I found myself thinking about Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, which is similarly set in the very near future and posits another kind of apocalypse, one that’s specifically linked to our over-reliance on technology. Jonze was more successful in showing how our humanity is what binds us together, and what really comprises that humanity; I think that’s what Payne was after in Downsizing, too. He succeeds only in fits and starts. But in the end, I have to admire him for attempting at all.

Downsizing opens in theaters on December 22.