“Downsizing” has one of the most original ideas for a story. The basic idea is that to avoid problems of overpopulation, a Norwegian scientist has figured out a way of shrinking people to approximately 5 inches in height. Such small people will require fewer natural resources so they can live cheaper and better.
The first 30-40 minutes of the movie is fascinating as it goes through the totally believable history of how these scientists created this process and how they introduce it to the world. Then this process becomes commonplace where people shrink themselves to live a better life.
Where “Downsizing” falls apart is that the rest of the story after the 40 minute mark doesn’t make much sense. The hero (Matt Damon) clearly has a problem in that he feels trapped in his life where he can’t make much money and feels he’ll never get ahead. So when a shrunken high school classmate appears for a class reunion and tells him about the benefits of getting downsized, he decides to investigate the downsized life with his wife. The sales pitch given by the miniature community sounds appealing as they depict a life of luxury and leisure where diamond bracelets and necklaces only cost $83, which represents a two-month food budget for downsized people.
After seeing how downsized people can live in a mansion and live a life of luxury and leisure, the hero and his wife decide to take this step for themselves, and that ends Act I, which is where the hero takes a leap of faith into a new world, following a Symbol of Hope that appears around the 15 minute mark (seeing his high school classmate downsized).
In a proper story structure, the hero would pursue this Symbol of Hope and achieve a False Victory of some kind by the midpoint (60 minute mark). For example, in “Star Wars,” the False Victory occurs when Luke finally leaves his planet. In “WALL-E,” this False Victory midpoint occurs when WALL-E finally reunites with Eve again in the spaceship housing the human race. In “Avatar,” this False Victory midpoint occurs when the hero finally makes love to his alien girlfriend.
In “Downsizing,” the hero never achieves this False Victory. Instead, his life immediately falls apart shortly after he goes through the shrinking process. Then the story veers off and focuses on him trying to deal with depression and finding a new mate. Then the story veers off once again when he discovers that minorities (Asians and Mexicans) live in the slums to do the manual labor needed to keep the rest of the community looking like a paradise. Then the story veers off one more time when the Norwegian scientist who invented the shrinking process discovers that methane gas is going to exterminate all life on Earth.
“Downsizing” starts off with a fascinating premise and makes it totally believable to the point where the hero sees this as a way to finally find happiness. Once the hero winds up in the downsized world, everything that happens to him from that point on has nothing to do with him being small and downsized. It’s as if two different stories were slapped together where the first one-third of the movie has nothing to do with the remaining two-thirds of the movie.
Even worse, characters pop up for no reason and have no goal of their own. While the hero has a goal of finding a better life for himself, the other characters do not. They simply appear momentarily then disappear. Because there is no villain, the hero has nothing to fight against. He’s basically an aimless, driftless man watching life happen around him rather than doing anything to solve his own problems.
“Downsizing” is a great idea spoiled by poor execution. The beginning of the movie (discovering a way to shrink people to save the planet) doesn’t properly foreshadow the ending (saving the remains of the human race from extinction). Although the beginning and ending both focus on saving the planet, the connection between the two is weak and the convoluted plot that gets the hero to the end isn’t directed by the hero but by outside circumstances.
Imagine if in “Star Wars,” Luke just sat around and watched the Death Star crash into an asteroid and blow up rather than have him blow it up. Would that create an interesting ending? No, and that’s exactly the flaw with “Downsizing.”
Watch “Downsizing” to see how the story structure falls apart and no amount of special effects or acting can save a poorly structured story. Here are all the things wrong with “Downsizing”:
- The hero has a goal to be happy, but once he’s downsized, he doesn’t have another strong goal to pursue for the rest of the movie
- There is no villain to force the hero to act
- The hero never achieves a False Victory at the midpoint of the story by pursuing a Symbol of Hope
- The beginning doesn’t foreshadow the ending and thus feels disconnected
- The other characters don’t change
- The hero passively allows himself to wind up in the end rather than actively moving himself to the end
- The premise of the story (shrinking people) is completely irrelevant for the remaining two-thirds of the movie
“Downsizing” is an example that telling a great story is more than just having a good idea. To write a great story, you need both a good idea and a structured story. Having a good idea with a poor story creates a disappointment like “Downsizing.” Having a bad idea with a structured story creates a screenplay nobody will be interested in reading. You need both a good, compelling idea and a structured screenplay. Nothing less will do.