Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Downsizing - perspectives on humanity and the quality of how we live and remember

Alexander Payne's incredible piece of science fiction imagines a world were Norwegian boffins investigating how to make the world more sustainable discover how to shrink living creatures down to 0.364% of their original volume.

Downsizing breaks into three chapters: the process of Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) adapting to their circumstances and being drawn to new 'downsized' communities were people go to live beautiful lives in relative luxury; Paul's first weeks living in the Leisureworld community; and finally his eye-opening encounter with a Vietnamese dissident who was forcibly shrunk and fled to the US.

Matt Damon plays the occupational therapist Paul Safranek who tackles work-related strains and injuries in a meat factory. Gone is the lean, mean fighting Jason Bourne. in Downsizing, Damon plays a forlorn and plump worrier, a tender everyman whose heart of gold and previous failures overrule his logic.

Into his shrunken world of pain and hurt comes the challenge of Ngoc Lan Tran. Hong Chau quickly weaves a richness to her character as a downsized Vietnamese dissident who stowed away to find a better life. Her dominating attitude brings structure and meaning to Paul's lacklustre existence.

Rolfe Kent's music is amongst the most varied soundtrack I've heard in a film for a long time. Brooding ominous refrains accompany the Safraneks on their way to be downsized. A dainty tune that could have jumped out of a jewellery box plays during the elaborate transition process. It's a rich and varied melodious smorgasbord that does much to manipulate the mood and add spice to the 135 minute long film. (Plot wise, it's imaginative but quite straightforward until the unexplained point when Paul's two friends need to go to a fjord.)

At one level the irreversible transition from big to small is a cue for special effects. Even before the plot specifically raised the issues, it was clear that this new perfect world must also have a less-wealthy underclass living in an unseen ghetto who build the mansions, prepare the gourmet lunches and administrate the apparently crime-free city that is protected from birds and bugs by a huge net that hangs overhead. Even utopia has its have nots.

Downsizing is an allegory that prods its audience into wondering about whether people can truly run away from themselves, human frailties and earthly catastrophes. Anxieties, pain and broken relationships are not shrunk as easily as cells and tissue. If anything, consumerist tendencies are boosted in the hedonistic downsized world, and although the resources being embedded in this new world are smaller, the ill-effects are larger. And world-wide pressures like devastating climate change loom over the small at least as much as the small.

While the environmental message is laid on thick, there's a strand of faith that builds up throughout the film, culminating in the 'Remember me' moment near the end. Hong Chau's performance as Ngoc Lan lifts the profundity of the film to a decent level and makes Downsizing the most thought-provoking film I've seen so far this year. In Queen's Film Theatre, Movie House Cinemas and beyond.

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