Paul Safranek: Plus you're really making a difference.
Dave: You mean all that crap about saving the planet?
Dave: Downsizing is about saving yourself. We live like kings. We got the best houses, the best restaurants. Cheesecake Factory, we got three of them.
As a solution to over-population, Norwegian scientists discover how to shrink humans to 5 inches (13 centimeters) tall and propose a 200-year global transition from big to small. People soon realize how much further money goes in a miniaturized world, and with the promise of a better life, everyman Paul Safranek (Damon) decides to abandon his stressed life in Omaha in order to become small and move to a new downsized community a choice that triggers life-changing adventures.
Downsizing contains examples of:
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Many audience members were appalled by Ngoc Lan Tran's accent, claiming it was a racist caricature. As both linguists and the actress herself have noted though, its actually a very accurate heavy Vietnamese accent, which would be expected of a recent immigrant. Many have also argued that the inability of some critics to see anything about the character beyond the accent is indicative of their own bias. Hong Chau, the actress, is herself the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants with an accent of this kind.
- Apocalypse How: The earth is facing a class 4 with all humans and many other species going extinct due to global warming.
- Artistic License Biology: Downsizing appears to have no impact on breathing or other biological functions. The only difficulty is apparently adjusting to milk and dairy.
- Artistic License Physics: Downsizing should either make you freeze to death as all your body heat is lost, or leave you with the metabolism and eating habits of similar sized creatures. Also, the apparent net loss of mass should result in an equal gain in light and thermal energy in the downsizing chamber.
- Bald Women: Everyone needs to be shaved before they are downsized. Audrey backed out of the procedure after they had finished with her head and one eyebrow.
- Bilingual Bonus: Several lines are said in untranslated Spanish.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Earth is doomed but Paul and Lan Tran are happy to live together and there are some downsized humans hiding in a bunker to reemerge when the surface is habitable.
- Brick Joke:
- As he is dropped off at his new house, Paul is warned that the hot water runs off a single system and is set rather high. When he tries to take a shower, he starts screaming obscenities from the heat.
- Konrad jokes that Little Ronni will contract syphilis due to his Anything That Moves lifestyle. At the end of the film Ronni is seen with a big sore on his mouth, an early sign of it.
- Central Theme:
- Do ways to improve our lives and get richer really build happiness and acceptance?
- As the poster tagline says, "we are all meant for something bigger".
- Chekhov's Gun:
- The audience learns early that prosthetics, like fake teeth and fillings, are not affected by the shrinking procedure, and must be removed and replaced. Later, we learn that a remaining gold tooth made a patient's head explode when he attempted to undergo downsizing in Mexico.
- The methane being released in the Arctic is predicted to cause global extinction.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Lan Tran is mentioned early on in the news and later shows up as a main character.
- Chekhov's Skill: Paul's medical skill turns out useful many times during the story.
- Crippling Castration: Averted. When Paul wakes up, he checks his genitals, and is relieved to find them intact.
- Disabled Love Interest: The one legged Lan Tran eventually hooks up with Paul.
- Domed Hometown: The downsized communities are placed under domes to limit exposure to environmental hazards, such as insects.
- Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: After Audrey calls him from the airport saying she backed out of downsizing, Paul doesn't seem to realize she's ditching him at Leisureland until after he asks her to come back and pick him up.Paul: Okay, okay. Take it easy. Just get in a taxi and come back, and we'll talk about this, okay? We'll go back to Omaha and we'll think this through together. ...Wait... You're not leaving me here.
- Green Aesop: In-Universe. Officially, people are encouraged to shrink to save resources, and thus save the Earth. However, Paul is encouraged to undergo the procedure because it could also help himself.
- Go Out with a Smile: Lan Tran's friend dies with a huge smile on her face due to being high on painkillers.
- It's All About Me:
- Audrey ends up backing out of the procedure at the last minute, unable to give up her family and friends. Her attempt to apologize comes off as rather pathetic as she mainly talks about how terrible she feels and trying to paint herself as the victim in all this. It results in a divorce.
- Paul is a normal, well-meaning person but he is a real opportunist and when he hears about the process of downsizing he becomes more focused on making his life better than what his wife thinks. However, she did agree to it, at least until the last minute, making this one somewhat subverted.
- Also, after Paul (on what seems to be only their second date) suggests that Kristen introduce him to her little boy and she kindly makes the completely valid point that it's way too early for that he grows petulant and immediately dismisses her, making it clear it's all over.
- Jerkass: One bar patron feels that the downsized people should not have the right to vote because of all the benefits they gain that normal people do not, while completely overlooking the personal sacrifice they have to make in return.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Christoph Waltz's character comes across as a total party-loving asshole at first, but he is happy and does help Paul with his issues and current situation.
- Keet: Leisureland Guide Matt.
- Lilliputians: People are shrunk to 5 inches, and normal world accommodations are built to scale for them.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Seen during the explanation of downsizing and during Paul's downsizing procedure.
- Mistaken Nationality: Paul's mother saw Jørgen Asbjørnsen on TV, and called him "the little Swedish man". "Norwegian", Paul corrects. This is also a Shout-Out, as Asbjørnsen is portrayed by Rolf Lassgård, a Swedish actor.
- No Antagonist: The film is just about Paul finding his place in the small world.
- Samaritan Syndrome: Zigzagged by Paul. He gave up a career as a doctor to nurse his sick mother. His only really selfish act is the downsizing.
- Scenery Porn: The final scenes in Norway. Exaggerated by the small people's size.
- Shrink Ray: A group of Norwegian scientists discovers how to shrink humans to 5 inches. The effect is irreversible. It also only works on organic matter. Deconstructed as the film explores the economic and social consequences of whole communities downsized, and some of the biological hazards.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Somewhere in the middle.
- Trailers Always Lie:
- The trailers implied that Paul's mind-numbing telemarketing job is what inspires him to undergo the procedure, but in the movie it's actually a job he's forced to take afterwards, when downsizing doesn't provide the life of luxury he expected.
- The trailers also show Paul and his friends tapping a bottle of Absolut vodka like it's a keg. This never happens, but Duan does transport several bottles of Absolut (among other things) to the colony in Norway near the end of the film.
- Twofer Token Minority: Lan Tran, who is the only significant character of color in the movie, lost her leg due to getting an infection when she was smuggled into the US.
- Urban Segregation: The disadvantaged small people live in a ghetto outside the planned neighborhood, made out of a normal-sized shack.
- Utopia: How shrinking and living in a micro-world is sold to the people. Preservation of the planet's resources, wealth due to even one person's modest income being more than enough for said person if he/she shrinks...
- What the Hell Is That Accent?: Subverted. The film received some criticism about Hong Chau's Vietnamese accent, with some claiming it was so thick and overdone that it was offensive. Not only did Chau base her accent off of her own Vietnamese relatives, accent experts and Vietnamese citizens alike agreed that it was spot-on.
- Worst Aid: Lan Tran overdoses her friend with painkillers, not heeding Paul's suggestion that two would be sufficient. The woman was dying of cancer anyway, so Lan Tran is just glad she died peacefully.
- You Can't Go Home Again: The shrinking process is irreversible, forcing participants to leave their old lives and move into small communities. This ultimately scares Audrey into backing out at the last second.