Miniaturising humans has been a sci-fi staple since Raquel Welch went on a Fantastic Voyage in the sixties. It’s also the plot device of Alexander Payne’s ambitious new film, in which Matt Damon is shrunk to five inches to begin a new life in a tiny community established to reduce environmental waste and combat overpopulation.

Shrinkage to save the planet is a fantastic premise full of intriguing possibilities, and for much of its first half Downsizing espouses the benefits of a small world. Financial problems are reduced, with affordable dollhouse mansions and the cost of living a mere fraction of that in the big wide world. A freshly picked rose becomes a living room centrepiece, and a full sized bottle of booze can last a lifetime. The miniaturisation process itself also provides some terrific visual gags, as well as the unsettling sight of Damon sans hair and eyebrows.   

“Once Damon settles into smallville, of course his problems get bigger – and so do the film’s”

Once Damon settles into smallville, of course his problems get bigger – and so do the film’s. Slotting into the grey area genre of magic-realist drama (see also Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich), the rich potential of this high concept is diminished by Payne’s signature preoccupation with the Joe Average who experiences a mid-life crisis and flounders aimlessly in the search for some kind of purpose.

Damon finds himself adrift between the shenanigans of an upstairs neighbour (Christoph Waltz, channelling his Tarantino characters into a Euro hedonist who hangs out with Udo Kier), and the plight of a one-legged Vietnamese cleaner (Hong Chau, in a performance that veers uncomfortably close to racist caricature), before embarking on a possible road to self-fulfillment that makes little sense.       

Downsizing would be a clever social satire if it didn’t share its protagonist’s frustrating lack of direction.

In cinemas: December 26, 2017
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau
Directed by: Alexander Payne