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BFI London Film Festival 2017 Review: Downsizing

"You should definitely downsize your expectations before you go in!"

Downsizing is a film that starts out with a phenomenal concept but gets a little lost in the execution. A brilliant scientific breakthrough allows people to be shrunk down to five inches tall, ostensibly for the purposes of saving resources, and therefore the planet.

The film starts strong, with a funny and engaging introduction to the concept, but is let down by Matt Damon’s everyman protagonist Paul. In a film so concerned with global impact, and international relations, the critique of American consumerism is tired. Kristen Wiig is wasted as Paul’s wife Audrey, who only really gets one moment to show off her comedic skill.

The many, many celebrity cameos add a shallow fun to a film which could be much more powerful than it is. Hong Chau plays a Vietnamese amputee activist Ngoc Lan Tran, whose important journey is used as a prop to wake bland Matt Damon up to the injustice still rife in the tiny world. Christoph Waltz plays Paul’s Gatsby-esque neighbor, and again, outshines him in every way.

The insistence upon a US-centric story and a traditionally everyman relatable protagonist is what lets the film down. Audiences no longer want to settle for passive protagonists, especially when fantastic characters are relegated to props to further their stories.

In the same way, the film had the potential to pack some hard-hitting political punches but fell short. The critique of American consumerism is nothing new, but it’s nicely integrated into the concept of the film. Other than that, it shies away from making any salient points. It’s more insulting than satyrical that Paul has to undergo this drastic lifestyle shift to have his eyes opened to problems like how race, class, and poverty intersect.

Paul gets buffeted around by other characters’ stories and motivations, resulting in a disjointed and dissatisfying narrative. Damon revels in the frankly boring character, whilst Chau sparkles as the no-nonsense do-gooder he ends up indebted to. There are some genuinely moving moments between the two of them, but the triteness and privilege of his life compared to hers just sets up an uncomfortable power imbalance.

Narrative-based complaints aside, the film is visually stunning. The impact of the size difference is great, and the sequence where we see the actual shrinking process is absolutely hilarious. There is no shortage of visual gags, and the effects are faultless.

After some meandering, what is supposedly the climax of the movie lacks the impact to achieve the intended effect. Rolf Lasgård plays the convincingly world-weary scientist who pioneered the technology, but the Norwegian colony Paul and the gang visit just seems like a bit of a caricature.

Though the satire is well-intentioned, overall the film doesn’t quite work because the audience it is directly appealing to is the politically un-engaged Pauls of the world, and in our current political climate, not many people can afford to be that switched off.

The world-building and the practical realism of the implementation of the technology is very clever, but those aspects can only hold the audience’s attention for so long. Waltz and Chau carry the film between them, but it’s very up and down.

Worth a watch, but not necessarily in cinemas. You can wait for this one to come out on DVD.

Rating
5.8
Pros
  • Brilliant visual design and execution
  • Hong Chau is a star in the making
  • A very clever concept
Cons
  • Not the best narrative structure
  • A boring, passive protagonist
  • Not as politically strong as it should have been

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Classics graduate, Publicist, film fan.

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