The 74th Venice Film Festival kicked off Wednesday with "Downsizing," a sci-fi drama starring a miniaturized Matt Damon, opening to enthusiastic early reviews.
Occupying a curtain-raising slot that has come to be seen as a strategic launchpad for films with Oscar ambitions, Alexander Payne's part satirical, part save-the-planet new work was hailed by the trade press as an intriguing and original breath of fresh air from the "Sideways" and "Nebraska" director.
The Hollywood Reporter said Payne had "hit the creative jackpot," while Variety welcomed a "ticklish and resonant crowd pleaser for grown ups."
London's Evening Standard was more reserved, praising the film as "often very funny" but bemoaning the abandonment of its initial satirical edge.
Set in the near future, the film is based on the premise that Norwegian scientists have found a way to literally reduce humanity's environmental footprint by downsizing humans to five-inch (12.5-centimeter) versions of themselves.
Soon however the technological breakthrough is being exploited for different reasons, as a means of enabling people to access a much more luxurious lifestyle than they could ever afford in the big world.
A combination of ecological and material motivations for being shrunk appeal to Paul Safranek (Damon), a kindly and well-meaning but stressed and frustrated occupational therapist from Omaha, and his wife Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig.
They sign up for the surgery but she gets cold feet at the last minute, leaving Damon to embark alone on his adventure in the miniaturized world he inhabits post-surgery.
Among those he comes into contact with there are a Christoph Waltz, who plays Dusan, his louche, party-loving neighbor in his miniature condominium, and Vietnamese cleaner Ngoc Lan, played by Hong Chau.
She, it turns out, had been forcibly miniaturized after being imprisoned as a dissident in her homeland and has lost a leg below the knee as a result of being smuggled into the United States in a television box.
Intrigued, Damon strikes up a friendship with her, taking the film in an unexpected Romcom direction that allows Payne to tie up his themes about the search for a better life, impending environmental catastrophe and the need, above all, to live in the moment.
Scripted by Payne, a two-time Oscar winner for his screenplays, and frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, the film will be hoping to emulate the success of "La La Land," "Birdman" and "Gravity," all Venice openers in recent years which went on to bag a bunch of awards.
Also being unveiled on the opening day was "Nico," a bio-pic focusing on the final years of the Velvet Underground singer and Andy Warhol muse which is being shown in the festival's "Horizons" section dedicated to cutting-edge productions.
Redford and Fonda
"Downsizing" is one of 21 films competing for Venice's top prize, the Golden Lion, which will be handed out on September 9, along with a string of other awards including the first for films in a new competition for virtual reality productions.
As usual the international film line-up at Venice ranges from big-budget Hollywood productions, like George Clooney's sixth directorial outing, "Suburbicon," to new works by indie favorites Andrew Haigh and Warwick Thornton, via documentaries such as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's epic look at the global refugee crisis, "Human Flow".
British director Haigh will be presenting "Lean on Pete," his first film since the acclaimed "45 Years," while Thornton arrives in Venice next week to promote "Sweet Country," a Western set in 1920s Australia that deals with the treatment of the country's indigenous peoples.
Along with Clooney, the major stars due on the red carpet include Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who will pick up lifetime achievement awards while plugging their new film "Our Souls at Night," a Netflix drama about an unconventional romance between two elderly neighbors.
The theme of love after a certain age is also addressed in "Leisure Seeker," in which Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland star as an independent, free-spirited couple coming to terms with Alzheimer's.
Spanish superstar couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz teamed up again for a new drama about Pablo Escobar, "Loving Pablo," in which Bardem plays the Colombian drug baron and Cruz his long-term mistress.
Bardem is also to be seen playing opposite Jennifer Lawrence in "mother!," a new film by "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky, that is one of several thrillers vying for honors.
Promoted by a Mother's Day-release of a poster showing Lawrence holding her own bloodied heart, the film tells the tale of a couple thrown into turmoil by uninvited guests.
Another spine-chiller features Ethan Hawke in Paul Schrader's "First Reformed," which turns around a dark secret harbored by members of a church who are tormented by the deaths of loved ones.
Also expected to make waves, with an out-of-competition world premiere, is "Victoria & Abdul," Stephen Frears' treatment of the true story of the elderly Queen Victoria's later-life friendship with an Indian clerk.
British director Frears is to be honored on Sunday for his innovative contribution to cinema.
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