– Summary –
Director : Juan Solanas
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, James Kidnie, Holly O’Brien, Nicholas Rose,
Approx Running Time : 108 Minutes
Synopsis: In an alternative reality, where two Earths exist within throwing distance of each other, a young man yearns to rekindle the lost love of his teenage years; by working against gravity itself, he finds himself working not only against the universe itself, but also against an enormous, malevolent corporation which has subjugated one half of the human race.
What we think : A case of judging a book by its cover, Upside Down looks amazing, but lacks something original in the core story it tries to tell. Essentially a snazzy retelling of Romeo & Juliet, mixed with elements of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the best episodes of Star Trek, Upside Down is nothing if not gorgeous to look at, albeit humdrum and rote characters undersell the dazzle. A terrific opening act is mitigated by a lack of momentum in the middle of the film, sapping the energy from proceedings until it comes to a conclusion that not only defeats the very purpose of the film, but underwhelms considerably to leave the gasping, heaving ruins of this story crashed upon the rocks of potential missed.
A moving, breathing work of almost-art….
Going into Upside Down knowing virtually nothing about it, other than it co-stars Kirsten Dunst, I have to admit to being impressed at first. The film’s incredible visuals, which look like they belong in an art gallery instead of up on the big screen, more than complement the dazzling concepts writer/director Juan Solanas has crafted in this sci-fi fantasy. Indeed, one might watch this film and feel like you’ve witnessed the next giant leap in digital film-making, such is the breathtaking visceral wonder of Upside Down’s almost incomprehensible enormity of visual effects. However, as we’ve learned through three interminable Star Wars prequels, visual effects do not a great film make, and while I’m inclined to give this film a pass simply for the way it looks, it’s an unfortunate fact that the story – and to a degree the characters – don’t quite live up to the opening titles’ promise. It annoys me having to write that, actually, because I really wanted to be transported to another world with this film; I was, I guess, but not in the way I expected, or hoped. I felt the ache of Upside Down’s promise, the subtle hug of potential, and wanted to simply slip into the fantasy fully and completely: only to find that intellectually, the film couldn’t manage to really involve me as both Solanas and I wanted. So what exactly are the issues with Upside Down that turn a breathtakingly beautiful film into a mere shrug of the shoulders?
In an alternative reality, Adam (Jim Sturgess) lives on one of two twinned worlds – both orbit a single sun, both worlds exists barely a mile apart, and their unique gravity allows for several specific rules: all matter is pulled towards the world in which it originates, not the other; an object’s weight can be offset by matter from the other world (known as “inverse matter”); and matter in contact with inverse matter inevitably spontaneously combusts. The Up world is rich and prosperous, while the Down world – where Adam lives – is poor and downtrodden. Contact between the worlds is expressly forbidden, with the exception of conglomerate Transworld, who provide a bridge (of sorts) between the worlds. As a young boy, Adam meets Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a girl from the Up world, with whom he falls in love. After an encounter which results in Eden’s apparent demise, Adam is shocked to learn that she lives on, some ten years later. Desperate to let her know he is alive, Adam concocts a plan to get a place at Transworld – he is working on an anti-aging cream thanks to the pollen of Pink Bee’s (which are the only creature able to exist in either world) and uses that to gain access to Transworld’s more extensive resources. Eden, working at Transworld herself, has developed amnesia as a result of the accident ten years prior, and has no memory of Adam. Adam, using inverse matter, woos Eden again, eventually revealing his true identity, although in doing so puts both Eden and himself in great danger.
Before I get into what I didn’t like about Upside Down, it’s important I reflect on what the film gets right. Undeniably, the most astonishing thing about the film are its staggeringly beautiful visual effects. I mean, they’re everywhere, ubiquitous to the story and often overpowering emotionally. Each frame of this film is a postcard of beauty, a pitch perfect, color-corrected template of digital perfection, rendering landscape vistas and human emotion with a near-sublime sense of wonderment. The film is tremendously visual, a factor Solanas incorporates within the narrative as often as possible. The effect of having an upper world so close to a lower world, no more potently rendered than a cube farm within the Transworld office tower, where cubicles exist both floor and ceiling, on each floor no less, keeps the viewer off-kilter and battling a unique sense of vertigo throughout. Indeed, it was nearly headache inducing at times trying to figure out which was was up, and which was down – a terrific intention on Solanas’ part, making sure the viewer is always off guard. You’ll be gobsmacked wondering just how it was all done – on computers, I’d wager! – and just where the digital effects begin, and the live action ends.
The cast – with one exception – are up to the task of bringing their characters to life. Lead Jim Sturgess (Across The Universe) does a great job as Adam, bringing a breathless passion for life to his thinly written character, while Timothy Spall appears as a fellow Transworld employee who befriends Adam upon his first day at work. Note James Kidnie’s terrific Transworld “middle management” character, a snakelike cavalier belligerence to his role that is as close to a Bad Guy as Upside Down gets. The main casting problem with Upside Down is the work of Kirsten Dunst, who looks for all the world like she’s wandered into the wrong movie for which she signed. Dunst flails around here, giving Eden a kind of Zooey Deschanel edge but lacking the kooky loveliness that actress commands – Dunst is typically a commendably solid actress, and in most cases I don’t mind what she brings to the table (even if a film is bad, she’s usually pretty good in it) but in Upside Down I felt both her and her character were from some other film. Eden’s lack of memory about Adam after their accident is resolved too quickly for my liking, before the film becomes something of a chase-and-evade flick, with Adam trying to stay one step ahead of the Transworld goons who come for him. The rest of the cast are merely window dressing for the main event of Adam and Eden’s love story, a story which hinges on the chemistry between the two actors.
And they have almost zero. Sturgess looks at Dunst like she’s the best thing ever, but Dunst looks like she’s trying to crawl out of the frame and off the set altogether. The film opens with a lovely romantic interlude, during which Eden sits on Adams shoulders on Down and bounces around defying gravity, but once her amnesia sets in, she becomes too frosty towards him; even when she begins to remember Adam, Eden’s aloof behavior is at odds with what she’s saying. Solanas manages to keep the majority of the film focused on Adam, allowing Sturgess to mine as much from his character as possible. The problem is that there’s almost no back-story to him, and what little their is feels contrived and obvious. Adam’s love for Eden is never compromised or examined, other than to say he becomes a sad-sack of hormones when he claps eyes on her the first time. It’s a doe-eyed kind of romance, and although the visuals command fantasy elements in ways I’ve never seen before, the characters don’t really feel like they have any depth to them. It’s simplistic character development at best. I’m not sure if sections of the film had issues in editing – Adam’s work colleague on Down, Pablo (Nicholas Rose) gives hints and tips that there’s a larger story lurking somewhere in the background, but Solanas never expands on it.
Upside Down’s significant failing is in its dearth of decent character development, and been-there-done-that story. While the wrapping of the film is indeed beautiful, the core of it comes unstuck like a politicians promise. Solanas has written a romantic story that follows the Romeo & Juliet arc of having two people who shouldn’t be together, trying to get together. He’s shoehorned it into a grotesque corporate-evil theme, as well as a semi post-apocalypse theme, but the key ingredients to the story feel used and worn out. The romance doesn’t work as well as it should, and neither does the juxtaposition of science fiction and fantasy in this case, leaving the audience with a jarring effect of trying to reconcile people having sex in zero gravity while flipping upside down and wandering about on the ceiling (which is filmed right-way-up most of the time) and a bunch of neck-twisting scenes which make your eyes water. The story also seems to limp to its conclusion – a breathless chase through what appears to be a crashed zeppelin (why?) is poorly realized compared to the rest of the film, with the finale coming along as if the stopwatch was counting down to the immovable onset of End Credits. Solanas’ spends all his creative goodwill at the opening, setting up the world and its “rules” with ease (although Sturgess weird voice-over through the opening and closing moments of the film are downright bizarre… what, was he sucking a lemon the whole time?) and leaving himself with only one way to go after that – down. Meh.
The themes of the film also feel recycled, and no matter how sublime the visuals are, they can’t make the story itself feel bright and fresh. Which is a shame, because this film deserved to be awesome in ways it simply isn’t. Hints of bureaucratic Big Brother, commercialism run rampant, and the subjugation of an entire sector of civilization, are used as crutches to prop up the flimsy narrative from time to time, which often leaves Upside Down feeling half-hearted at best, even when the film looks like a tent-pole blockbuster. Never have I wanted a film to succeed as much as I did with this one, and I truly wanted to be lost in its unique vision as much as I could – in the end, however, Upside Down left me visually excited, but mentally yearning still. It’s a great looking film, and ostensibly tells a good story of two people destined to be together forever, but overcoming the inherent lack of depth within the characters is something the film can’t manage. At best a pleasant diversion with some wonderful cinematography and visual effects (expect to see this film scoop some technical Oscars in 2014), but at its worst it’s a missed opportunity to elevate a rather simple romantic love story into something more powerful – but misses the mark at critical moments. Upside Down is commendably daring, yet fruitless in character, lacking warmth where needed, and starving the audience of affection for the very reason it exists.