Downsizing, the film. Nearly flew under my radar.

5 min readSep 2, 2018

Misrepresented and misunderstood. Like a lot of issues it covers, really.

Reddit is a swamp, I’ve noted a number of times. But there are some islands in the swamp where you can find small nuggets of quality information. In a discussion of an article encouraging people to reduce their breeding to save the environment, I was joking about the fact that I’d seen an earlier scientific article suggesting that if we were to create GMO smaller humans, we’d save a lot of resources. Another commenter pointed me to the film Downsizing, which I had not heard of. I chuckled, nearly dismissed it, but then I saw the involvement of director Alexander Payne. I fell for Payne years ago with one of my favorite films of all time-Citizen Ruth. And I loved Election. So I put it in my Netflix queue and waited for my turn.

While waiting, I admit that I did a little digging through the reviews — but not too many, to spoil my take on it. It was pretty clear, though, that the film underperformed people’s expectations. Still, I wanted to give it a shot. And it was definitely worth my time.

The description at IMDB is brief and not very informative:

A social satire in which a man realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself to five inches tall, allowing him to live in wealth and splendor.

Some other places call it a sci-fi tale, because of the fictional science required to shrink the humans. Maybe some people find that a trope. I just figured it was the “gimme” that you sometimes need for a sci-fi film, accept the premise that this exists and deal with the rest of the story on its own terms. And I think some people wanted more humor. But many of the conditions of the earth aren’t that funny right now, and the film captures that.

The setup: scientists in Norway have developed technology that can reduce the size of the human footprint on earth by reducing the size of the humans. It’s a way to use resources responsibly and stop the damage to the planet that’s clearly underway.

So the scientists see the warnings, and create a solution. But what does adoption of this technology turn out to be?

Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen: Nature is such a patient sculptor — grinding a tiny bit each day slowly, slowly for thousands of years to make such a supremely beautiful thing. [overcome with sadness]

Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen: What a waste. What a dreadful waste.

Does he regret speeding up evolution? Or trying to save us by speeding it up? Or is it a waste that we didn’t all adopt the solution? Or that some adopted it poorly? His partner notes: “Jorgen has lost so much sleep over all the abuses.”

Would you pack up your life and change everything?

The central character is a decent guy who tried to do the right things in his average life, but was thwarted by circumstances that are all too real. He and his wife are working hard, but can’t seem to attain the things they want — including a mortgage. He’d found this “cellular miniaturization” tech appealing when he saw it on TV news stories. But he eventually decides this might be the way for him to have the life he wants for his family. Maybe the enviro benefits are good, but more directly for him — he can afford the things he can’t right now in the larger world. He can afford to move into the Barbie Mansion and have the teeny Tesla now, and they’ll live happily ever after. Right?

What’s unsaid here is that the enviro-tech solutions become a marketing ploy, a lure to a better life if you give us money to live in this gated community. It can also be used as a punishment. Technology has dual use, as always. Helping and harming, depending on who is using it and how.

What we also see is that humans gonna human. You might change the circumstances or the size of your problems. But the damn humans turn out to be the same, with the same drives and dramas and flaws.

Dusan Mirkovic: Friends tell friends the truth. Okay, maybe sometimes I’m a little bit asshole, but the world needs assholes. Otherwise where would shit go out.

Some people become humanitarians and activists. Some become opportunists and assholes. Some cling to technology as the answer. I’ve always said that about our tech — printing presses, radio, TV, internet — our communication types change and we blame them for failures, but our brain wiring really is still an old operating system and that’s our ultimate problem.

One especially discomforting part we are shown in full: inequalities follow us to the next tech, to the next organizational structure, to the next iteration. Some people resist the ensmallening ideas out of fear, and threaten adopters. Co-existence is a challenge. Accomodations are resented. But is it also a savior in some ways?

Payne’s genius here, though, and in the other films of his I’ve loved: he finds the overlap in the Venn diagram between the opposing views and makes you stand in it. Some characters do the right thing by accident. Some don’t do the right thing, but they aren’t all bad and have reasons for their choices. Some people have a strong moral compass, but that can seem unforgiving and uncompromising in some ways too. Where do you stand when there are real problems, and some solutions conflict?

The old ark. Same as the new ark.

There are some moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the roller bag and boarding the Svalbard-for-humans techno-ark. But they are kind of subtle, and if you are looking for an SNL skit this isn’t the film you want.

I can see why people have problems with it. There are some valid criticisms of the pace and the shifts that occur. But I think they were in service to the key points that needed to be made. There was some clunkiness to it — but I don’t know how it could have been done more smoothly and covered this ground, either. It is an unusual hybrid. And I’m ok with that. Some things just aren’t tidy and orderly. Including biology. Also humans.

There are a few films that I want to own because streaming them is not always ideal, and they’ve been known to disappear. This is one I’m going to buy and revisit. There’s a lot more going on than the film was given credit for (and the commenters there make some excellent additional points).

People feel strongly about this film, for good and for bad. But that conversation will be interesting too. Can we find the overlap in the Venn? Let’s have at it.




Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and and molecular biology.