This month, the review team doubles up to get iconic. Carrie Vaughn takes a look at Downsizing, a film giving a new spin to one of SF’s most classic tropes: shrinking. Christopher East, on the other hand, gives us a review of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, the small screen’s newest take on the worlds of SF icon Philip K. Dick.
Downsizing: Tiny Capitalism Is Still Capitalism
Directed by Alexander Payne
Produced by Paramount Pictures, Ad Hominem Enterprises, Annapurna Pictures
December 22, 2017
This isn’t a brilliant film, but I can’t help thinking that it should have been. It’s ambitious, meaty, thoughtful science fiction, which there isn’t enough of in film, and somehow it doesn’t quite hold together.
The story: A scientist figures out how to shrink living organisms. What can such technology be used for? Why, solving global overpopulation and resource drain. Small people only use a small amount of food, water, etc. The planet is saved! Except not really, because capitalism gets a hold of the concept and markets it to middle America as a way to turn meager savings into an affluent lifestyle. $150,000 in the big world translates to 12 million in the contained, small communities that have sprung up. A matched set of diamond jewelry—conflict free!—can be had for $83. You can save the planet, and still live in a giant house and eat at Cheesecake Factory and go to pool parties with all your status-driven neighbors.
Paul and his wife Audrey work hard but aren’t getting anywhere. They dream of the big house and nice amenities, but have no way of getting there, until they decide to downsize. The problem: Audrey chickens out after Paul has already undergone the irreversible procedure. So now, unexpectedly divorced, he lives in Leisureland, a paradise of American suburban affluence that comes across just as excruciating as it sounds. It has three Cheesecake Factories, people!
Some aspects of the shrinking technology and its implications are well thought out—the process only works on organic tissue, so extensive dental work is required to remove all fillings, crowns, etc. and then replace them small. People with artificial joints or other permanent implants are disqualified from shrinking entirely. Paul meets a downsized globetrotter with his own yacht—how does he travel around the world? He certainly can’t sail in a toy-sized boat. The answer: He FedExes the boat ahead.
The film’s first act promises a conventional suburban comedy with sight gags and effects-laden pratfalls. But that setup falls away, and the rest of the film hammers the audience with social commentary. What you notice right away, of course, is the whole army of people who need to help small people be small. Someone needs to carry your traveling box to your high school reunion. (I kept worrying that one of those boxes was going to get dropped.) There are the small medical personal on the other side of the shrinking process, the small groundskeepers of those nice park areas. We didn’t see it, but I imagine there’s a factory somewhere of small people making small-scale clothes, furniture, and so on. And those small McMansions don’t clean themselves.
Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist who was arrested in her home country and shrunk against her will. She escaped to America in a TV shipping box, was the only survivor of that harrowing passage, and lost her leg in the process. Now she cleans houses, and through her, Paul discovers that even Leisureland has a slum, a couple of crates outside the walled paradise where downsized people who’ve fallen through the cracks, along with the people who bus into the nice part of town to clean houses and such, live.
This ought to be the most planned of planned communities—literally no one can get there without going through a seriously involved medical procedure. Never before has there been a community like this where literally every single person should be accounted for and taken care of. And yet, somehow, the ubiquitous stratification of society has still taken place.
Turns out, reproducing the excesses of late capitalism at a small scale doesn’t actually solve any problems. This is what the film does well—it doesn’t go the route of easy comedy, and instead sets up a critique of consumer culture and how a technology-driven society goes about solving its problems.
For all the clarity of its message, the movie still feels off-balance.
What may be part of the film’s undoing is the expectation engendered by a whole history of movies and shows about people being shrunk. It’s a standard trope, from Land of the Giants to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and even Ant-Man, and it’s invariably about the spectacle. Watching small people trying to navigate a world where dandelions are the size of trees, the curb is a cliff, and the family dog has become a ravening monster. Downsizing has none of this. Nobody gets washed down a drain, nobody has to figure out how to operate a giant phone. Main character Paul’s life is never in danger from his being five inches tall. Since downsized people live in scaled down communities, most of the movie has no special effects at all. This takes a familiar trope and does something completely different with it, and I wonder if that confused audiences. We keep waiting for the action and suspense to start, and they never do. So what is the movie about?
I’ve always really liked the concept of social engineering versus technological engineering. Technological engineering is about the scientific, mechanical, step-by-step issues involved in solving various problems humanity confronts. Social engineering is about changing the customs and mores that maybe caused some of those problems in the first place. Downsizing is about both of these and the differences between them, and I’ve never seen that before.
It’s a pet peeve of mine: the premise in a lot of science fiction that moving the whole of humanity off planet is somehow an easier solution for saving everyone from environmental catastrophe than, you know, convincing us to move away from a fossil-fuel-based economy. I’m suspicious of stories in which some massive technological fix, rather than an examination of the behavior behind the problem, solves everything. Because if we have the technology to build vast space colonies, we damn well have the know-how to heal the planet. What these fictions can’t seem to imagine is us developing the will to do so.
The scientist behind the downsizing technology conceived it as a way to conserve resources and solve overpopulation. But it’s not enough. When Paul meets him, Dr. Asbjörnsen despairs: Climate change is already past the tipping point, humanity is doomed. So he has a new outrageous technological solution: a self-contained ark deep underground where a community of small people can live for the next few thousand years until Earth is habitable again. This seems entirely reasonable to Paul. Right up until it doesn’t. The vast technological solution ignores the small, individual problems right in front of him, that he can fix right now.
We already have what we need to fix the problems around us, if we could only decide to do so. But that’s not very much fun. The big technological fix is more exciting. Moreover, the film explicitly states that the people signing up for Leisureland aren’t doing it to help save the planet—they’re doing it because they want the affluent lifestyle and can’t afford it any other way. Paul states that he wants to join the underground commune to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than himself—it feels like fate to him. But Ngoc Lan confronts him with reality: There are easier and more useful ways to help people, if that’s what he really wants to do. The movie ends with him helping her deliver meals to the elderly and infirm at Leisureland’s slum.
There’s a fine line—a story needs a main character to follow, so we can get an emotional anchor to the story as well as the meaning behind it. But that can lead to feeling like all this has happened so our guy can have a revelation. It’s not about the world, it’s about him, or is it? And this I think may be the other spot where the movie falls down. Most of the characters walk a line between being clichés, saying something about those clichés, and also being well-developed characters. Rather than maintaining a balance between all these things, though, the story wobbles. It’s a comedy, it’s serious, it’s both, it’s neither. It’s hard finding our footing as viewers.
Paul isn’t particularly likeable, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of agency. He decides to go small because an old high school friend did it; he goes to the original small colony in Norway because his weird aging Eurotrash neighbor takes him along. It’s Ngoc Lan who begs to go, and who was actually invited by the colony. Paul wants to join the underground colony because Dr. Asbjörnsen said it was a good idea. Paul’s arc isn’t about becoming a better or more enlightened person, but about finding the right person to influence him to his best life—Ngoc Lan.
Ngoc Lan starts as a stereotype—a shrill, bossy, Asian house cleaner. But what was maybe the expected portrayal of the heroic oppressed foreign activist is also a stereotype—Paul even asks her, why isn’t she off on a lecture tour or writing books? Well, she’s too busy earning money and taking care of her neighbors. She’s an uncomfortable character, and she’s supposed to be. She certainly isn’t supposed to be the love interest opposite Matt Damon in a big Hollywood movie. But she is, and actress Hong Chau received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the role.
These stereotype-but-not-quite characters are another aspect of how this film juggles a lot of balls, in terms of story, message, and visualization. It aims very high, and if it doesn’t hit the mark, I have to give it a lot of credit for trying.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (Season 1)
Channel 4, Sony Pictures Television
Philip K. Dick was a singular, prodigious talent in science fiction, but over the years, as his body of work has spawned something of an unlikely media empire, I’ve often wondered if the author would be baffled by Hollywood’s passion for adapting his stuff. Since the release of Blade Runner—itself, for all its iconic brilliance, not a particularly Dickian vision—the entertainment industry has been mining his oeuvre in search of the next breakout skiffy premise. But in doing so, they’ve rarely if ever captured Dick’s quirky tone or elusive, unsettling ethos.
Enter Amazon, which has already gone to the well for the polished—but, again, not particularly Dickian—The Man in the High Castle. Now they’ve jumped into the fray with Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Peak TV’s latest SF anthology series to appear in the wake of the genre-reviving Black Mirror. Using Dick’s prolific output as the genesis for several standalone hours, it makes for a very welcome addition to the science fiction TV landscape.
Initially, Electric Dreams, which aired in the United Kingdom on Channel 4 before joining Amazon’s arsenal, presents like a cagey Black Mirror clone. Based on how Amazon reordered the episodes, one has to wonder if this was a deliberate counter-attack on Netflix’s critical darling; indeed, the first two episodes in Amazon’s queue wouldn’t have looked out of place on Black Mirror, presenting grim visions of the future that explore the nightmarish ramifications of technology. To be fair, though, even in these hours the show begins to set itself apart tonally. “Real Life,” scripted by Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame, won’t shock seasoned SF readers with how it deploys its virtual reality premise, but it’s a professional, successful segment. Anna Paquin stars as Sarah, a police detective struggling with survivor’s guilt in the wake of an on-the-job tragedy. At the urging of her girlfriend, she utilizes a VR headset to take a virtual vacation—which puts her so convincingly into the life of the troubled George (Terrence Howard), a brilliant video game designer, that she loses the ability to tell which person she/he truly is. Visually, “Real Life” owes more to Ridley Scott than Dick, and its script has some unfortunate infodumpy passages, but it’s a nifty structural puzzle that leverages one of the author’s classic themes—what is real?—to thought-provoking effect. Similarly clever is “Autofac,” which boasts a technological dystopia that could easily have come from Charlie Brooker—but no, it’s the product of the Cold War nuclear paranoia that fueled Dick’s early work. In the wake of a nuclear holocaust, human survivors—led by the brilliant Emily (Juno Temple)—work to combat the self-replicating drones and machines of a megafactory that relentlessly despoils the landscape. Emily and her team shoot down a drone and hatch a plan to infiltrate and destroy the autofac by manipulating the protocols of a humanoid customer service robot (Janelle Monáe). “Autofac” possesses glimpses of Dick’s sensibility, but despite its mid-twentieth-century roots, it’s very much informed by the present, a scornful critique of runaway capitalism. Temple delivers a compelling lead performance, while Monáe pulls off an effective “uncanny valley” replicant. (Ironic that this one should appear on Amazon, the one company on the planet that may be poised to become an actual autofac . . .)
If these opening episodes seem to mimic a competitor, the next few serve to set the show apart, illustrating Electric Dreams’ true advantage over Black Mirror: more diversity of tone and subject matter. Unfortunately, “Human Is” wastes the amazing Bryan Cranston in an underwhelming tale of retro pulp science fiction about a space captain sent on a mission to harvest natural resources from an alien planet. Upon his return, his wife (Essie Davis), whose relationship with him is contentious, starts to see him in an unsettling new light. The episode’s depiction of environmental dystopia is visually accomplished, but ultimately the episode is slow-moving, dull, and unsurprising. By comparison, “Crazy Diamond” is a slight step up, and one of the few hours that manages to capture Dick’s quirky, absurd sense of humor. It features Steve Buscemi, and I have a hard time imagining a more perfect actor to play the prototypical PKD protagonist. He stars as a scientist who works in a factory that designs artificial humanoids; he starts to see the troubling inhumanity of his work when one of the artificial beings he helped create (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) comes to him for help, roping him into black market intrigue. While its plot is less than satisfying, “Crazy Diamond” is mesmerizingly weird and visually stunning. It conjures something of Dick’s vision, an erratic but engaging blend of throwback skiffy concepts and contemporary futurism.
“The Hood Maker” continues in a retro vein, leaning even more heavily into the Blade Runner visual style, but it feels more worthy of extended discussion as an effective genre metaphor. This grim, dystopian noir stars Holliday Grainger as Honor, a police officer who is also a telepath. On her first case, Honor is paired with a non-telepath detective named Ross (Richard Madden) to track down a criminal who is making and distributing telepathy-proof hoods. “The Hood Maker” succeeds rather interestingly as an evocation of the 1950s that spawned it, the 1980s that influenced it, and the 2010s that ultimately produced it. Its old-school SF ideas and visuals also feel quite relevant and effective, both as a commentary on police-state assaults on personal privacy and an allegory for humanity’s destructive, othering tribalism. Grainger and Madden are both capable and charismatic, and the episode possesses a shape both structurally and thematically satisfying.
Alas, the season hits some doldrums, starting with “Safe and Sound,” perhaps the single most frustrating episode of the series. In this one Foster Lee (Annalise Basso) journeys with her politician mother (Maura Tierney) to the sophisticated, over-regulated future city from their humble roots in a “bubble” community in the west. In a school full of kids who are technologically linked to the citywide network, Foster feels like an outcast—until she scores her own “dex,” which cedes all her personal information to the city. The slick, futuristic dystopia of “Safe and Sound” builds confidently, but the plot fails the premise when it reaches the ending, wherein a potentially powerful ambiguity is blown apart by clumsy over-explication. It’s followed by the underwhelming “The Father Thing,” a pastoral alien invasion tale in which a suburban kid (Jack Gore) senses something amiss with his dad (Greg Kinnear) in the wake of a meteor shower. Kinnear’s American everyman charms are a great fit with the role, and there are some unsettling effects, but overall this one falls flat, its blend of Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot and Stranger Things style making it feel dated, derivative, and disappointing. Rounding out this rough patch is “Impossible Planet,” a sleepy tale of space tourism pilots (Jack Reynor and Benedict Wong) who con an old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) who wants to return to the long-destroyed planet Earth. Surreal and visually lush, “Impossible Planet” is a stretched expansion of a simple conceit, and while it deploys impressive eyeball kicks, it utterly lacks narrative energy.
Fortunately, the final two outings restore the show’s luster. The jewel in the season’s crown is “The Commuter,” a thoughtful, touching meditation on paths not taken. A train station employee named Ed (Timothy Spall) becomes obsessed with a mysterious traveler (Tuppence Middleton) who requests tickets to a town that doesn’t exist. The dark turns of fate that inform Ed’s sad life lead him to investigate further, and ultimately travel to the dreamlike town of Macon Heights, a community that only exists in an idealized alternate timeline. The idea is familiar—perhaps Rod Serling stole it from Dick for his famous Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby,” to which it bears a certain resemblance. But this is a more mature and resonant take on the idea, a beautifully executed metaphor for the dangers of succumbing to the lure of regretful fantasizing. Spall’s thoroughly endearing performance and an eerie, elegiac atmosphere contribute greatly to the success of the hour, which for me was easily the season’s most satisfying. Finally, rounding out the season is “Kill All Others,” an episode of blunt but powerful political commentary. In the future meganation of “MexUSCan,” a run-of-the-mill factory worker named Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez) leads a complacent, simple existence, until he hears what appears to be a shocking, subliminal message in the speech of the nation’s one-party Candidate (Vera Farmiga): that in order to succeed, the nation’s citizens must “kill all others.” Detailed, unnerving world-building and a nuanced, sympathetic performance from Rodriguez are the primary outward assets of “Kill All Others,” but the true power comes through a scathing critique of toxic American notions of consumerism, patriotism, and cultural homogoneity that, if anything, are more relevant now than they were in Dick’s original story.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ first season is uneven, with a low point for every high one. But by and large, I consider it a successful, ambitious anthology show, well worth watching. The production values and acting talent are first-rate, and even the weaker episodes are thoughtful, polished, and eye-catching. While none of the individual episodes perfectly encapsulate the inimitable flavor of Dick’s written work, together they explore—in a refreshingly varied way—a wide array of the author’s many themes and passions. Taken as a whole, in fact, these ten episodes may make a better case for the longevity of Dick’s lingering influence on the field than all of the previous adaptations combined. His material certainly lends itself to vast and varied interpretation, and there’s more than enough of it to fuel more episodes—which I would definitely look forward to with enthusiasm.
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