Just before I went into the screening of Alexander Payne’s new film, Downsizing, I was reading George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian, “Is this the end of civilisation? We could take a different path”.
That could be the subtitle to this odd and amusing film from the director of Nebraska and The Descendants.
Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an everyman who cares for his mum, then his wife, all while working as an occupational therapist in a meat factory.
Meanwhile in Norway, kindly utopian scientists are working on a radical way to halt climate change, which they attribute to overpopulation.
Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (played by the original Wallander, Rolf Lassgård) has cracked it — he’s successfully shrunk human beings, including himself, to under five inches tall. The idea is that small people will use far fewer resources and thus potentially save the planet.
But, as we have argued in the pages of Socialist Review, technological solutions alone won’t resolve the climate crisis if the social relations which have created the problem remain.
And thus “downsizing” becomes another capitalist consumer product — shrink yourself and your money will go further! You can be rich! Buy one of our luxury lifestyle packages!
Or, as Paul’s old school friend Dave puts it, “Downsizing isn’t about saving the planet; it’s about saving yourself.”
Paul, racked with financial difficulties and stuck in a rut, takes the plunge, and soon discovers the dark side to Leisureland, the private small people’s complex he moves to.
Migrant workers, some shrunk without their consent, live in slums outside the wall, while his own dreams of early retirement fall apart.
When he meets Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident who has escaped prison and lost a leg on her terrifiying journey to America, he begins to find new priorities.
There has been some criticism of this as a “white saviour” relationship, but I don’t agree. Tran is a powerful figure who pulls Paul into her work, taking it for granted that people should help each other.
Structurally, Downsizing feels like four chapters, with the pace and mood changing as your expectations are confounded.
It is a comical allegory with an underlying message — bleak about the human race; more hopeful about the individual.