Downsizing
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Downsizing

Most modern movies utilize special effects to one degree or another. While the use is obvious in many science fiction and fantasy films practical and computer-generated enhancements and alterations are commonplace in movies that seemingly take place in the real world. One of the earliest types of effects used in movies is the illusion of extremely small people and other objects. One of the first demonstration of the techniques required to achieve this goal was seen in the 1935 horror movie, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’. I realize that there were examples in silent film that predated this, but the cited movie was one of the earliest horror movie sequel. Arguably the most famous use of miniaturization, particularly among science fiction enthusiasts would have to be ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)’. A major concern for the filmmaker was presenting effects sufficiently convincing that from the perspective of the audience the illusion is seamless. The goal was to blend normal sized objects along side their miniaturized counterparts in such a way as to allow the viewer to not focus on the effect but consider it as another part of telling the story. This was achieved in a most spectacular fashion in Peter Jackson’s ‘Middle Earth Sagas. Among the most recent movies to heavily rely on these techniques is ‘Downsizing’. That term has become synonymous with economic hardship typically referring to the euphemism used by human resources to say, "you’re fired’. The reason frequently given is some variation of corporate restructuring that necessitates a considerable reduction in staff. Within the context of this story the term refers to literally reducing the size of a person down to approximately five inches, or for most of the world, 12.7 cm. there is some appropriate connotations to repurposing this particular term since the most common reason people in the story subject themselves to this drastic life change is economic distress.

The movie begins with an expository prologue to introduce the requisite technology and lay the groundwork for the conclusion. In Norway a foundation was established to determine the extent that humanity has deleteriously affected the environment. Scientist worked on a broad spectrum of causes and potential solutions. Arguably the most unique and unusual was devised by Dr. Andreas Jacobsen (Sřren Pilmark) and his team. They invented a process to perfectly reduce the size of organic matter down to 1/14th scale. This would reduce a 5’10" man to 5". Working with a group of volunteers they establish the first small colonies in Norway. The concept was simple, tiny people require less resources than normal. Their waste would subsequently be proportionately diminished. Over the next decade the procedure catches on although only 3% of the world’s population is reduced. That is still around 225 million people. Most people find the most attractive incentive to undergo downsizing is the cost of living plummets exponentially increasing the value of financial assets. Communities are setup around the world specifically designed for a miniaturized population.

The focus of the story shifts to Omaha, Nebraska, the base of operations for Omaha Steaks. The resident occupational therapist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), is just finishing helping ab employee. Paul is cheerful, knowledgeable and anxious to help others. Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are preparing to attend Paul’s high school reunion. During the festivities a small commotion begins and a crowd forms. An old friend of Paul and Audrey, Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis), and his wife, Carol (Maribeth Monroe) have become small. After the gathering they go back to the Safranek home where catching up becomes the seed of a life changing decision. Paul and Audrey have been trying to move to a better house, but the market seemed stacked against them. They aren’t living paycheck to paycheck but they du not have the credit rating or down payment to swing the mortgage. After talking it over the decide to relocate to Leisure Village, a downsized community. The story follows the couple has the navigate the procedures to become small. During this first act most of the most difficult special effects were required. Understandably, the greatest challenge existed during the scenes that combined ‘big’ and ‘small’ people and props. One of the extras on the Blu-ray details the various techniques used to achieve these visuals. The ration of precisely 1:14 did make the logistics easier. To make on object appear one 14th its size the camera must be placed fourteen time further away. This did necessitate some larger than usual sound stages. The general guiding principle drive the effects team was to make the effects as transparent as feasible, again, most crucial in mixed scale shots. There were several missteps notable in thus movie, but the effects team’s contribution was not one of them.

Any ‘advanced’ technology critical to establishing a story is problematic requiring a substantial suspension of disbelief. Still, most viewers expect a degree of internal consistency. As part of the preparation for miniaturization all dental work and hair had to be completely removed. The premise clearly stated that organic material could successfully undergo the process. Ceramic and metal dental work or prosthetics would have to be remove but hair is organic and didn’t seem to be an issue with test animals. There is a mention that if the dental work isn’t removed the subject’s head will explode upon reduction. Attempts are made to achieve a modicum of internal consistency but ultimately it is a moot point with regards to the overall narrative. At its core the story is the character arc of Paul as he tries his best to help others and hopefully find some measure of personal happiness. Downsizing and moving to Leisure Village was intended to be a fresh start but it quickly spiraled into complete collapse. The process required that they liquidate everything. The proceeds should have provided a lust lifestyle for life thanks to a deluxe package from the community. Which included a fully stocked mansion with all possible amenities.

The day finally came to undergo the procedure. Paul and Audrey go to the center where they are efficiently processed. Paul remains cheerful as they shave his head and eyebrow before administering the anesthesia. The procedure goes smoothly, and Paul is taken to the recovery room. He receives a frantic phone call from Audrey, she backed out at the last moment. Once her head was shaved and one eyebrow removed she had panic attack and ran. The divorce rendered Paul unable to sustain the lifestyle as planned. He was forced to move to an apartment building. unable transfer his credentials as an occupational therapist he was forcing him to take a job as a help center operator. The seconds act entails meeting his neighbor, a Russian business opportunist, Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz). He constantly throws loud, out of controlled parties financed by selling small versions of black market items. One day Paul meets one of Dušan’s housekeepers, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist. It has become commonplace in third world countries to downsize people deemed undesirable by the government against their will. Ngoc lost her lower leg during her rescue by the authorities. Ever helpful, Paul notices that her prosthetic was poorly fitted and offered to try to fix it, accidently breaking it. Ngoc has been helping the destitute in s ghetto outside the resort. Unable to make her rounds she demands Paul help her, as in doing the work for her. This close contact allows a relationship to blossom which carries the third act. A considerable amount of the movie’s energy is a result of the excellent performance by Ms. Chau. She is undoubtedly the breakout star of the film. Unfortunately, the narrative is derailed in the final act by muddled writing and a predicable conclusion. At least the filmmaker managed to achieve one goal, the special effects were unobtrusively integrated as part of the storytelling.

Posted    03/28/2018

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