Upon first glance, one might be tempted to praise Upside Down for its visual splendor and original concept. After all, this is a movie about two worlds with opposite fields of gravity that hover right on top of each other. But look a little deeper, and you’ll discover that writer/director Juan Solanas’ film is just a substandard love story wrapped in a gimmick that isn’t nearly as interesting as the filmmaker thinks.
The film opens with an agonizingly long voiceover narration from a young man named Adam (Jim Sturgess). In the most breathy way possible, he prattles on about the wonders of the universe and describes how unique his planet is, describing the “three basic laws of double gravity”: all matter is subject to the gravity of the world it comes from; gravity can be offset by matter from the other world called “inverse matter;” and after about an hour, matter that touches inverse matter will burn. If that wasn’t enough, he continues his offscreen narration and goes into a diatribe about pink bee pollen he and his aunt find on a forbidden mountaintop (yes, seriously) that has some sort of magical properties that offset gravity. All of this information is necessary to the plot, but there’s absolutely no need to present it in such a clunky way; a good writer would have worked it all in organically to the story, but it’s clear from the opening minute that Solanas is not a good writer.
Upside Down centers on Adam and Eden (Kirsten Dunst), two adorable kids that first meet when Adam is at the top of the forbidden mountain searching for his pink dust. Eden is from the world up top, where everyone is rich and a massive corporation called TransWorld rules all, and Adam is from “down below,” the lower world which is constantly sh*t on by the players above. His world is full of ugly, dirty people who scrounge for food in the streets and dodge oil spilling from TransWorld’s pipeline, jammed into their ground and transporting oil between worlds so everyone can live a glorious life above while those below suffer. THERE ARE TWO WORLDS, AND THEY’RE VERY DIFFERENT, OK? Anyway, the Romeo and Juliet stand-ins grow into teenagers and sometimes cross the world boundary to be with each other, but always briefly because otherwise they’ll be set on fire.
But of course, things can’t stay groovy forever. The gravity police show up and try to separate the lovers. Adam’s house is burned, he’s ripped away from his only remaining relative, and he thinks Eden’s dead, so he turns into a mad scientist (?) while he develops some kind of formula involving the pink bee dust. Ten years later, he sees Eden on TV and discovers that she’s working for TransWorld, so he leaves his bros behind and goes to work for the enemy, presenting them with his pink dust anti-gravity product that the evil corporation wants to sell as an anti-aging creme to the Upper World. (Ooooh, social commentary!) While there, he finds out that Eden has amnesia – naturally – so he assumes an alternate identity, wears inverse matter counterweights, and goes over to her side to try to remind her of the burning love they used to share.
Solanas is clearly in love with his own visuals, but either the budget isn’t big enough or the visual effects department isn’t good enough to make them truly awe-inspiring. Instead of the majesty he’s sure we’re basking in, the film feels as if we’re travelling through the computer game “Myst” circa 1995. Try as he might, he did not make anything remotely close to the wonder that Aronofsky achieved in The Fountain. Many of the exterior effects here look cheap and unconvincing, and while there are admittedly the occasional moments in which the movie looks like a moving, living painting, the ratio of good to bad VFX shots is not nearly what he thinks it is. It gets so obnoxious that only a few minutes in you can almost sense Solanas just off screen, smirking to himself about how amazing he thinks everything looks.
I’ll give the film a tiny bit of credit. Some of the interior stuff is impressive, particularly when characters from different worlds occupy the same room (with some people on the ceiling and others on the floor) and transfer objects to one another in a continuous shot. Conceptually, there are a few things that ended up translating pretty well: in the Upper World, people order expensive drinks from Down Below and drink them upside down in martini glasses; a furnace located Down Below contains little pieces of inverse matter stuck to its ceiling that constantly burn to provide heat; in a centerpiece action sequence, Sturgess leaps into the ocean, strips off inverse matter counterweights, and then flies through the sky only to crash into the ocean Down Below. But these tiny moments don’t justify the premise, and Sturgess and Dunst aren’t given enough in the script to make the love story feel plausible enough for us to invest in it, so the whole thing just feels like we’re watching a pretentious film student screen the most obvious movie ever about class warfare and constantly asking us if we “get it.”
The dialogue is cringe-worthy, which I suppose is to be expected from a first time English language movie that’s putting all of its eggs in the VFX basket. And I won’t ruin it but the climax is anything but climactic, instead inventing a laughable, unearned deus ex machina that comes out of nowhere to sweep all explanations and problems away simply because the story is coming to an end. The ending makes exactly zero sense, but by that point, the audience has probably realized that there’s no way this story is miraculously going to become rational, so you’re either with it or you’re not. (If it’s not clear by now, I was as far from “with it” as possible.) Half-assed action setpieces, piss-poor character interactions, and a half-baked romance all serve the worldbuilding. Solanas has it backwards; worldbuilding is supposed to enhance the storytelling, not the other way around. Because the filmmaker doesn’t understand the difference, Upside Down is a failure from the opening frame. Until next time…