In Alexander Payne’s new movie, a dainty Easy Bake Oven bell-chime signals the completion of the cellular reduction process. People who were normal-sized adults are now only inches tall, gently lifted off their beds with implements that look like spatulas. The moment is both cute and terrifying at the same time, much like Downsizing itself.
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Downsizing concerns itself—in large and small ways—with looking at the sacrifices humans make in the name of sustainable existence. Its main character is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who continues to live in the house he grew up even after he gets married. He and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) just can’t pool enough money to live the life of their dreams. Just when it seems like they’ll be stuck in one social strata forever, they have a fateful high-school reunion encounter with friend Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis), who’s undergone the procedure called downsizing. The Safraneks listen raptly as Dave tells them how shrinking down to the size of an action figure has exponentially improved his life. Won over by his testimonial, the couple decide they’re going to take the plunge and get small.
The movie’s first third brims with clever extrapolations of how the titular super-science would change lives, attitudes, and policies. Created as a way to alleviate humanity’s environmental impact, minimization, as it is also called, winds up creating new industries and negatively affecting the bottom lines of old ones. It also gets used as punishment in harsher regimes, as in the case of Vietnamese environmental activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). When she and other dissidents protested the erasure of their village to make way for a dam, they got shrunk down and jailed. (An escape inside a TV box brings her to the United States.) A news report about national security ramifications of minimization gets a drunk in…