Family friendly comedy films come and go, most likely because for many in the film industry they seem like easy money. Parents don’t want to show kids a film that is not approved for them, most kids’ films are unbearable for adults, so the best way of cramming an entire family into their seats in the cinema is to push out yet another generic, bland, poorly conceived comedy with limited swearing and a single allocated shot of a topless woman. So, to put this politely, I did not have high expectations for Downsizing.
It premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, actually headlining, which is what grabbed my attention and left me patient enough to give it a chance.
In this tale by Alexander Payne, Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, a stereotypical businessman, an occupational therapist working hard day in and day out, still living in the exact house he was born in. Like many of us, Paul finds himself trapped by his life and often wonders what could be out there for him. He wants to start over and do some new things.
Enter the sci-fi portion of the film. In this world there is a form of technology called “cellular miniaturisation”, which basically shrinks down every cell in your body to ensure that your entire person can be reduced to only five inches tall, retaining every personal characteristic.
Paul is very much interested. He realizes that if he is shrunken down he needs to consume much less, meaning his money will go much further. Rather than being worth 152,000 dollars, after being shrunk this money is equivalent to twelve million. He can now afford to go from a stressed out workaholic who is always keeping up with the Joneses to a retired millionaire overnight.
In theory, this process is an economical and ecological dream. Shrinking humans down means less resources are used, means the wealth we create can go that much further, means our carbon footprint is wiped down to a tiny little smudge. But Payne also explores the downsides of such technology existing. In some parts of the world miniaturisation is being used as a weapon against rivals, wiping out entire societies and ethnic groups. In other parts of the world terrorists are shrinking themselves down to sneak into their enemies’ countries. And, as a final kicker: even the “best” miniaturised societies only work because there are still full size people out there.
Paul’s upstairs neighbour is a playboy miniature millionaire who makes a fortune by getting contraband goods into their little utopia. Nothing and nowhere is safe. Without the full size people controlling every aspect of what the miniature people do, illegal drugs and banned goods will find their way right back into society. Without full sized people making money and spending most of the money, the economy would shrink again and the miniature bubble would collapse, massive inflation would happen, and everyone would be back where they started.
Some have found this film amazing. In the eyes of its fans, Payne’s work has taken a completely bizarre, new perspective on the world and is using it to illustrate how human behaviour will always manifest no matter what you do to try and control it. People will always seek to do better than one another, always exploit each other, and new technology is never safe from corruption. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but it is also ultimately true.
However Payne’s critics take a different angle on the film. They love the science fiction aspect of it, the exploration of how this world may come to be, and how this technology might work. But they are unconvinced by the moral arguments made in it. The inevitability of human nature strikes them as a defeatist conclusion for a film about the future and progress. They have noted that the characters seem to be more caricatures to make a point, like the animals in fables, and less real humans, and that this underscores the pessimism of the film.
In short, Payne’s tale has got us all thinking about human nature, human society, and where we are going next. Are humans doomed to repeat our society over and over, no matter what progress we make and what intentions we have? Will all developments ultimately fall into the wrong hands and end up complicating and endangering the world around us? Or should we leave room for hope? Should we look forward to a future where progress means social progress as well as technological developments? And should we not let tales like Downsizing infiltrate our minds and the minds of our children and create a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Ultimately, the debate is a bit of a moot point. If progress happens and we use it poorly, then that’s what happens. And if society has the potential to ever move beyond our current short-sightedness, then we almost certainly will, no matter how many films tell us otherwise. As for me, I’m just glad to have seen a rich, interesting, thought-provoking film that is also very funny and appropriate for all the family. Which is progress of its own kind.