Matt Damon's Bizarre New Sci-Fi Movie Makes Him 5 Inches Tall

downsizing matt damon
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Matt Damon may be playing small, but the ideas flying around in his new movie Downsizing, in which people voluntarily shrink themselves, couldn't be any bigger.

Directed by Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Nebraska) and based on his original script (written with longtime collaborator Jim Taylor), Downsizing feels like it's based on a thousand page sci-fi cult classic. That's not all good news, as there's definitely something of a meandering quality to the film, but it is overstuffed with whacked-out ideas and certainly the most original movie with mainstream stars since last year's The Lobster.

So why is Matt Damon five inches tall? Well, on paper it's to save the Earth. That's what the Norwegian scientists that invented “cellular miniaturization” had in mind. The world's woes are all due to its overpopulation, but if people were the size of a salt shaker, Mother Nature might just have a chance at survival. When you can put four years' worth of waste from a community of 32 people in half a Hefty bag (as is proudly displayed at a scientific conference) you begin to see potential.

But how to sell “downsizing” to people? Well, that's the real reason Matt Damon is five inches tall. His nice guy/sad sack Paul Safranak, an occupational therapist aiding beef slicers at Omaha Steaks, lives in the same house he grew up in with his unhappy wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). As with much of the American middle class, he's feeling stretched thin, and is reconciled to the fact that he'll never have the life he dreamed for himself. That is, unless, he gets small.

If he “downsizes,” his meager life savings would make him a millionaire in the shrunk-down economy of Leisureland Estates, one of the many protected planned communities for the very small. (Nets and such keep out the birds and insects.) The first act of Downsizing is a rich and hilarious “what if?” that digs into all the social ramifications of this strange technology actually being real. The payoff comes in a sequence in which Paul and Audrey actually go for their medical procedure. Warning: if you are squeamish about dental stuff you may need to look away, but not for too long, because you need to see what a normal-sized spatula can do to a tiny person.

Adjusting to miniaturization is tough on everyone at first, but there are a number of unexpected twists for the Safranaks, and you shouldn't let anybody spoil them for you. Suffice to say not everything goes according to plan, but this isn't the type of movie where there's some grand conspiracy. It's about how most of us only see the world as we're conditioned to see it. What makes Downsizing such a remarkable work is how willing Alexander Payne is to pick up ideas and then drop them for another unexpected bend in the story.

Leisureland Estates works as a microcosm of society (duh), but when you have a science-fiction hook it works as storytelling electroshock, allowing for some very basic questions about equality, righteousness, and a sense of purpose that might otherwise seem mawkish. There's a scene in this movie in which everyone starts crying during a sunset over a fjord, and believe it or not, you buy it.

That's ultimately the magic of Downsizing: it makes total sense as you're watching it. But come into it midway, and a nurse trying to feed bald, eyebrow-less Matt Damon a Saltine that's bigger than he is, and you may think someone dosed your drink -- or started tinkering with your cells.

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Jordan Hoffman is a film critic and writer whose work appears in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @jhoffman.