As the endlessly quoted aphorism goes, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It also easier, it appears, to imagine Matt Damon shrinking his body to five inches, joining a Lilliputian society administered by an American healthcare provider, and becoming politically radicalised by his experiences with the poor. Even in this farflung universe, the social relations remain the same.
This is what happens in Alexander Payne’s high-concept sci-fi Downsizing (2017). In the near future, Nordic scientists invent a technique for averting climate change disaster: a serum that shrinks the human body. If taken by enough people the tonic promises to dramatically reduce levels of consumption – a riff on the (increasingly popular) Malthusian myth that overpopulation is the cause of all social problems.
A growing proportion of working-class people start to opt for the irreversible shrinking procedure – not for environmental reasons but to alleviate financial woes. In the world of little people (a Truman Show-esque settlement called Leisureland) a single dollar can buy thousands of dollars’ worth of commodities; as long as value is pegged to the real world, a mansion and a diamond necklace cost only a few hundred dollars. Advertisements for ‘going small’ are seductive, pitched somewhere between the predations of payday-loan companies and suburban white flight.
Damon plays Paul Safranek, a well-intentioned, put-upon husband (a typical Payne protagonist), who undergoes the procedure with his wife – only to wake up, miniaturised, and discover that she got cold feet and abandoned him on the operating table. This emasculating moment is literalised when he leaves Leisureland to sign a (giant) divorce contract with her normal-sized lawyer. To pay alimony he takes up a menial office job in the tiny world – this supposed utopia isn’t even liberated from work.
But life is worse for others. Paul discovers that Leisureland runs on the labour of miniature workers: (tiny) Asian and Hispanic women who live in slums clean the (tiny) mansions of Russian businessmen, who make their millions importing (tiny) Cuban cigars. The narrative is, therefore, anchored by a critique of techno-utopianism: there is no technical fix to human suffering; unless capitalist social relations are directly addressed, racialised and gendered exploitation will continue to reproduce itself.
This decent insight is soon lost. There are too many genres to juggle; tone and structure come falling down. The narrative bends over backwards to soothe Paul’s injured male pride: he is moved by the plight of a tiny disabled Vietnamese domestic worker and they embark (after sleeping together) on a life of charity. You will be watching the mawkish ending through squinted eyes. It is implied that there will be no revolution in Leisureland – and one is left wondering whether Payne only half understands the film he’s made, or whether he’s only made half a film.