The Problems With the Movie Downsizing Explained

First things first… sorry for the bumpiness the past month. The site is now successfully moved to much much better hosting (cough – godaddy sucks – cough) and its nice to see the site responsive again. So with that, let’s get to talking about movies again!!

Here on THiNC. I make a concerted effort to try and bring you movie tips for movies worth your while. I consider myself something of a Thinking Man’s Movie Recommendation Service. Of sorts. So implicit in that? I don’t really talk about bad movies much. When I watch a movie car crash, I avert my eyes and move on. I don’t generally post a review and trash it. (Warcraft being an enormous exception to that particular rule… oh holy mother of all that is good and holy, what happened there? Anyway. I digress.)  But occasionally, read rarely, you come across Ishtar levels of bad and it is worth talking about. And Downsizing, is literally Ishtar levels of bad. And yet, it’s a really really fascinating car crash at the same time. So heck. I say we talk about what they did, and maybe what they were possibly trying to do.

First things first, this discussion is going to walk through the movie in detail. I personally don’t mind spoiling this movie for you, because I would be doing you a service to keep you out of the theater, and even averting disaster for you at the Redbox would be a win in my book. So no trailer. So no, you don’t have to leave if you haven’t seen the movie yet. But know, I plan to dive deep on this movie. Ok?

Downsizing Car Crash Overview

I’m sure you’ve seen the trailer for this movie already. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know what it’s about. A couple, not able to afford the house that they want, encounter this new, irreversible technology, that allows you to downsize to 5 inches tall. This in turn, would allow them to buy a McMansion and live the amazing life they always wanted for a tenth of the price. And when I originally saw the trailer, I expected sort of a funny, Honey I Shrunk the Kids sort of a movie with a social/eco consciousness message to it. Maybe? I expected a diatribe about the planet and harm to the planet our materialism and our myopic selfishness are causing.

Nope. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Paul Safranek, (played by Matt Damon) and his wife, Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) decide they are going to downsize in order to live a better life materially. Only glitch? When Paul wakes up from the fairly invasive procedure, Audrey backed out. And did I mention already that the procedure is irreversible? Right, so Paul is screwed. That’s juke 1.

Off Paul goes to his little people community. It’s a bubbled off universe where only little people are welcome. And from there, Paul then spends the next 30 to 40 minutes learning about this new little world, and sulking his way through the movie really doing nothing. Full disclosure – Now, please forgive me if I get some of the plot details wrong. I was completely in pain throughout, and may have been even checking my email, and trying to find other things to do as the movie rolled. – end Full Disclosure. But somewhere along the line (don’t think it was in the movie anywhere) Paul decided to sell his Barbie Mansion and get an apartment. (Did anyone see that actually happen? Did I just miss that?) And I think he did that because he was feeling lonely? Didn’t need the payments?

Paul goes to work as a call center rep for L.L. Bean? Land’s End? He talks to his fellow littles about the dangers of repetitive stress syndrome. He goes on dates and is rejected out of hand. Paul literally wanders through the movie bumping off of people left and right. Eventually he meets Dusan Mirkovic, a party animal socialite next door neighbor. The two strike up a bit of a friendship and from that, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran a Vietnamese little person that survived fleeing from Vietnam in a Television box when 25 others die horribly in the shipment. (No, I cannot help you here. You are on your own.)

Ngoc mistakes Paul for a doctor (he’s a physical therapist of sorts) and hauls him to come help her “friend”. Ngoc then basically kills her friend with a “funny” overdose of Percocet? And then Paul destroys Ngoc’s prosthetic leg, and is now indebted to Ngoc – and so he begins helping her with her cleaning business. And in the process, continues assisting all the other “friends” of Ngoc’s who have very sad needs brought on both by their smallness and by their poverty. Because, woah! There are poor people in Little World!?!? What?!

But Paul can’t tell Ngoc he’s done. So he gets his friend Dusan, to make a cover story that they are going to go to Europe for some odd reason or other. But wait! Ngoc has been invited to go and speak Europe as a dissident and activist, so she’ll come too! So they are now going with her, and who is she going to meet? But the inventor of the downsizing process. I kid you not. And so off they go on a European Vacation for little people to a little valley out in the real world where only little people live. And better yet? This weekend, was the weekend where all of the village was heading underground to avoid the coming apocalypse imminent from enormous levels of methane coming up out of the earth’s crust. (Did I even get that right? That makes no sense to me when I type it out.) And Paul, he’s falling for Ngoc now. But he just KNOWS he needs to go into this underground arc.

But he runs out at the last minute, and declares his love for Ngoc… the end.

WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT Downsizing Creators?

As far as scripts go, I have never seen anything like this script. It is rambling and lacking in point. But maybe I just missed some key tell? I mean, let’s just forget the fact that this movie is interminable, boring, and unintelligible… that is a different problem. I’m just trying to make heads or tails out of this thing philosophically.

The summary on IMDB calls it a social satire… but on what? A satire on our materialism? No. A satire on technology and our cluelessness as to its impacts? No. A satire on our society’s lemming mentality? Maybe. But, not really? If anything it was a character study of someone buffeted by the whims and speculations of society desperate for meaning and desperate for clarity.

Problems with Downsizing Special Effects

Can I say this, Rick Moranis and his Honey I Shrunk the Kids series of movies did more justice to downsizing than Downsizing did. In Damon’s movie, once or twice we see the effects of being small which are just played out with green screen overlays, but generally, the movie doesn’t address the impact smallifying yourself would have. Everything is perfect. That’s about it. But it’s all still real.

Let me put it this way, the creators of Downsizing assume that modern technology can create everything at normal sizes perfectly at smaller sizes. Houses aren’t barbie houses increased. Cars are plastic replicas, biggified. The sets are all just gorgeous neighborhoods. And that is the extent of it. Sure, we jump forward 15 to 20 years in time. But seriously? I’d expect to see some of the downsizing effects played out somehow more specifically.

What Does the Movie Downsizing Mean?

This discussion about the movie has so far been all over the map. Special effects. Script discussions. Zeitgeist chaos and questions. But here’s where it all pulls into a coherent bundle where we all, in Ishtar-like fascination, try and guess at what the heck the creators of Downsizing were trying to do. So, with that in mind… I have assembled a few of the best theories to explain this car crash of a script.

Theory 1 – The Eco Friendly Downsizing

The most obvious, elementary school reading of this movie is that Alexander Payne took the small house idea and flipped it on its head. Instead of just decreasing our global footprint square footage by buying less, farming more, etc. he surmised as to what would happen if we literally shrunk ourselves and smallified our global impact.

Problems with Theory 1 – Well, the first problem with the most obvious reading of this movie is that the movie counters this theory very well itself. There is one scene where a half drunk guy in a bar spews venom at smallified individuals for depressing the housing market, the job market, and the economy over all. By making 10 or 20% of your world population small you immediately decrease production needs by that percentage… or close to it. Which then causes markets to drag and even crash as a result.

Downsizing, the movie, also points out that no matter how small people become, you will always have the poorer, and the less fortunate among you. By shrinking you don’t guarantee that this world wide problem of the haves and the have nots will go away. It will always be an issue. So if I’m going to be poor, I might as well be big and poor simultaneously.

Theory 2 – The Counter Revolutionary Downsizing

Now let’s give this movie all kinds of extra chord… but will it hang itself with that much rope? What if Mr. Payne was writing a counter revolutionary pamphlet? Something on the order of Thomas Payne’s ‘Common Sense’ maybe? A call to revolution, a call to a massive change to the order of things in order to solve societal problems that Alexander Payne sees in the world. Not just pollution and ocean levels, but the inbound end of the world. And Mr. Payne has written here a treatise on how to avoid the obvious end of the world he sees clearly coming.

Problems with Theory 2 – Oh man, there are too many to count here. To say that this movie is serious on any front defies all sanity. But I wish Payne had gone the Payne route. (woah.) I wish he had gone all in on this movie and given us something meaty to think about. But Paul Safranek is such a unworthy vessel to carry this message. Paul doesn’t care about pamphlets or world cataclysms. He has a hard enough finding someone to take him or his troubles seriously. Let alone teach the audience how to live our lives in such a way as to avoid global catastrophe.  No. This theory isn’t even worth ones and zeros I typed it out on.

Theory 3 – The Suburbicon Misfire of Downsizing

This isn’t really a theory as its more of an observation. Suburbicon was fantastic as cutting social and racial observation of America at large. It took an amazing moment in history (the Levittown suburb housing complex incidents), folded in a fictional murder, and voila, Clooney had the workings of an amazing New York Times Op-Ed piece for thinking men and women everywhere.

Could it be that Alexander Payne was reaching for the stars of Op-Ed fame-dom and just wiped out along the way? Could the goal have been a societal commentary shedding light on our eco-unfriendliness and our societal chaos towards being anything other than me-focused? (To blend elements of Theory 1 and 2 simultaneously?

The Problems With Theory 3

Long and short of it? This theory gives way too much credit to Payne and minimizes the achievements of Suburbicon. Which, I doubt many enjoyed, but most could have learned from. Did you know that was based on reality? But Downsizing? What reality are we going after here? What windmill exactly is Payne tilting at? It is nothing and everything. There is no distinguishable idea here that can be spotted and identified here. It is a wandering miasmic chaos from beginning to end.

Theory 4 – Learning the Good Life – Downsizing

One of the problems with Downsizing, as I mentioned in the previous theory, is Paul Safranek. He is a horrible, witless person. He and his wife decide they cannot afford the plush life they deserve and so they head to the downsizing world. But Mrs. Safranek ditches Paul at the altar of the operating table.

Shouldn’t this story be renamed The Jilting of Granny Weatherall?

Then he begins his life of social obligation and frantic assistance of Ngoc who forces him to help out of social debt. It’s almost like he is a social showman forced into a life sentence of good works to pay off an ever growing debt he can never afford to pay off.


Could it be that Paul is being mentored by Mister Miyagi? Wax ON! Wax OFF! Huh. Is Ngoc teaching him how to live the good life through repetition and senseless actions? Is the audience being taught muscle memory on how to make the world a better place? So that one day we’ll accidentally act instead of running for the cover our comfy couches and our bigscreen TVs? Could it be?

The Problems with Theory 4 – Ok, so this one is getting a little closer to something. The entire 2nd half of the movie follows Paul and Ngoc as they run around the Barrio of Smallville helping an endless array of people in need. It all starts with an assisted suicide. And quickly heads into providing meals to those who haven’t had a meal. And marches off into Paul becoming a full blow physician as no one else will make the effort to help the people who are so badly in need of it. This is something I can get behind. True religion after all is the widow, the orphan and the impoverished.

But to blow a hole in this theory wider than Texas, I have to wonder why if it really is about the needs of others first and the impoverished in every community, why did Downsizing abruptly leave this community? If it was really about finding those in need around you, why did they leave them when Paul was only just starting to learn this lesson?!? No. This is not the point of this particular movie… or if it is, they were horribly fickle with this particular point.

Theory 5 – The Noah’s Ark of Downsizing

As Downsizing crashes its way towards the meandering ending we leave Ngoc’s land of familiar and head to meet the creator of the Downsized world, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen. In effect, Paul is going to meet God. Or, at least, a god like figure. The demi-god of Downsizing anyway. But when they finally meet him we learn that he believes that the world is about to end. Something about massive amounts of methane and gas being released? I literally have no idea, and couldn’t be bothered to figure out what it was getting at. The point here that matters is that Paul’s creator believes the world is ending.

Right? So much so that the littles (oh come on, that was funny) have created an underground ark to ride out the storm. And Paul?!? Oh my gosh! He’s in. He has to go! I mean, God is calling him. This can’t be a coincidence! (He literally says this. I am not, I cannot, make this stuff up.) So he tries to convince that Ngoc should come. But she isn’t having any of it. Oh well. Gotta go. Bye! But when he finds out that it’s 9 months of walking to get to the Ark, suddenly he thinks better of it and turns around.

Wait, WHAT?!?

So God spoke. And Paul tried to follow through but it was hard, and lonely, so he bailed? In this Ark theory of Downsizing we see that Downsizing really is about Paul’s learning to stop listening to everyone else but himself, including god. He listened to the whims of society and got 86’d and marooned in Smallville. He listened to the whims of Ngoc and unthinkingly was ordered around if even for a good cause. But his heart wasn’t in that either. Then with the ending, he listened to the god of the littles and followed their advice even when he knew it was wrong.

So this Ark theory means basically just argues that the entire movie, the littling, the Ngoc’ing, the Arking, was all about Paul just learning to make decisions for himself. To just stand up for himself and do what he thought was right instead of everyone else.

The Problems with Theory 5 – I got nothing to say this theory is wrong. Save for the rest of this scatter shot movie. If this was the point, then they could have done it without the Downsizing. That literally didn’t even need to be in the movie. He and his wife could have purchased a house out of state, and she just decided she didn’t want to go. But financially Paul couldn’t get himself off the hook so he goes. And then Ngoc obliges him to help others, which he does. And then, Paul meets his favorite author, a Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen, who tells him of his Ark that he’s built… Downsizing doesn’t have to be in this movie. And it would have removed a highly distracting aspect of an already distracted movie. I don’t know. I got nothing for you.

Final thoughts on Downsizing

3,000 words. I have spewed 3,000 words of vitriol at a movie I disliked very much. But why? Solely because I wanted it, very badly, to have a point. ANY POINT would do. Pick one. The acting was nigh on irrelevant. The script was worse than Pirates of the Caribbeans 5… which is hard to do. The “humor” was humorless. The special effects were irrelevant and unmemorable.  But at the very least, if you are going to make a satire, make it about SOMETHING. I still literally don’t know if they were making fun of the small house fad, or even if they were making fun of eco-friendly crusaders… which, makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’m still left guessing as to its point. But I think this quote from Payne succinctly summarizes the problem of this movie:

“We’re not political filmmakers per se. We weren’t setting out to make a movie about overpopulation and climate change. But I thought
 it would only be decent of me to do something with some kind of political consciousness to it…”

So apparently Payne thought it decent to spend 70 million on a half assed movie with “a bit of a political consciousness to it”? So maybe it really is about over population and climate change? Gack. Awful. Is that really what it was about? Do you have any ideas?

Downsizing has zero idea as to what it wants to be when it grows up... and we don't know either. IMDB