Matt Damon's New Movie Reveals the Downside of Downsizing
Leisureland joins a long line of imagined mini-worlds that echo the problems of their full-sized counterparts.
Matt Damon in Downsizing. © Paramount Pictures
Downsizing, a new film by Alexander Payne, puts forth an interesting idea—what if we could reduce our footprint on the earth’s surface by shifting the scale of human settlement? The premise that new science has made it possible to shrink humans at the cellular level sets up a delightful series of what-ifs when a process devised by ecologically minded Norwegian scientists is commandeered by American entrepreneurs, who repackage and market “downsizing” as a way to live a luxurious life for less.
Predictably, the promise of a Mar-a-Lago lifestyle quickly beats out Scandinavian thrift, and plush communities for tiny people begin to spring up. Leisureland, a 1:12-scale resort town protected from New Mexico’s birds of prey by a giant net, is one of the swankiest; it’s home to several thousand newly-small Americans. Matt Damon, a sad-sack occupational therapist from Omaha, takes the leap into this modern-day Lilliput after hearing glowing accounts of life there from an old classmate, who advises him, “go and get small and it will take [your financial] pressure right off.”
Damon’s modest savings will get him the scale equivalent of a 12,000-square-foot home with a gym, pool, and sauna. But of course, even after he zaps himself down to matchbox size, his troubles refuse to melt away; the competitive mentality that oppressed him in Omaha reappears in the exclusive clubs, faux-Parisian promenades, and endless golf courses of Leisureland.
The motif of a miniature world goes back to antiquity, but it was Gulliver's Travels that gave us the language we still use to talk about asymmetry in size. Much of the novel is about the corporality of humans; Swift never skips a chance to show how funny and weird it is that Gulliver is big and his Lilliputian hosts are small. Downsizing, on the other hand, isn’t about tiny people so much as it is about tiny real estate.
It’s an apt topic in post-recession America, where tiny homesteading and micro apartments are all the rage. But the film flips these movements on end: they’re no longer ways to declutter your mind, but a means to accumulate more and live larger (ironically, by getting smaller). This idea doesn’t come from nowhere. The cramped kingdoms of Denmark and the Netherlands both excelled at dollhouses and wunderkammer—tableaux where the wide world could be contained in a single piece of furniture. Life was captured and cultivated in miniature; the world turned bonsai. As a form of enclosure, tiny worlds give us a mastery we can never experience in our own lives. One example is Detective Lester Freamon in the television show The Wire, who moonlights as a dollhouse furniture maker, a craft that gives him the control and comfort he can’t find on the Baltimore streets.
New York City recently opened Gulliver’s Gate, a $40 million miniature version of the world that features 1:87 scale versions of nearly a thousand landmarks in a windowless bunker by Times Square. For an extra fee, visitors can get 3-D scanned and have a tiny version of themselves placed in-world. And countless other countries have miniaturized versions of their territory that showcase national treasures; what they choose to include and exclude reveals a lot about their self-image. The Dutch Madurodam proudly depicts miniaturized Amsterdam brothels and coffee shops, whereas Mini Israel scrambles geography and omits border walls to suggest a contiguous state without Palestinians.
Model worlds and architectural site models allow us to create communities as we think they ought to be. They’re the building blocks of new orders—presented in boardrooms, and by Bond villains, as proof positive of their worldview. But they can also take on a life of their own. Robert Moses, the great maker of NYC’s highways and breaker of communities, used a tabletop model to advocate for his Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 1941 project that would have obliterated Battery Park and cast much of the island’s tip in shadow. The visualization of the expressway’s massive moorings in model form may have helped to kill it: what appeared innocuous as an architectural elevation became ominous in three dimensions. The same is true of a 1950s plan to dam all of the freshwater flowing into San Francisco Bay, but a massive hydraulic model built by the Army Corps of Engineers convinced city officials to leave the tidal flows be.
Like so many other violent interventions that offer quick fixes, the idea of downsizing presented in Payne’s movie plays on the longstanding technological fantasy that humans can innovate their way out of anything. We can model problems in miniature, and imagine tiny humans without issue, but we still find it hard to accept that we must fundamentally restructure our relationship to the natural world.
Downsizing is in wide release.