Argentine filmmaker Juan Solanas’ mind-bending leap from short film Oscar nominee to big budget feature imaginer is a boldly original high concept that’s visually vibrant but sadly, fails to wow in any of the ways you wish it would.
A science fiction, star-crossed courtship between Eden (Kirsten Dunst) and Adam (Jim Sturgess) sees the lovers overcoming society and the laws of physics to be together. Existing in a solar system with double gravity, Adam and Eden’s twin planets orbit the same sun in a world where it’s possible to fall up and rise down depending on your perspective.
The gleaming lights of prosperous, just-out-of-reach Transworld shine down tauntingly on the struggling citizens of Down Below, a poverty stricken land of soot and ash without electricity. Looming large in every frame of the film, this persuasively Dickensian dystopia remains bizarrely divorced from the D.O.A. love affair at the film’s centre. Their amour lacking anything substantive or subtextual, more politically charged pining would have positioned Adam and Eve as an “us against the world(s)” couple, elevating the emotional stakes and audience investment.
It’s indicative of how under-developed the romance of this over-plotted film is, that Eden suffering sudden amnesia is treated so spuriously. Just another first act obstacle to keep the lovers apart, the sadness and heartache of how the condition affects both parties is never addressed, and just like a forgotten memory, it’s dumped altogether when it no longer feels dramatically urgent.
Three fundamental laws of double gravity govern this particular universe. One in particular is loaded with dramatic urgency. All matter is bound to the world from which it hails, so Adam visits Transworld (right side up) by offsetting Down Below’s gravity with inverse matter from the other world concealed on his person. The hitch is that as time passes, the inverse matter becomes combustible and starts burning through his clothes. TAs soon as Adam dumps what scolds and holds him in Transworld, he’s pulled back into his own gravity.
There’s an expectation for a suitably thrilling set piece the moment this is laid out, providing the basis for the film’s one truly memorable sequence. Prolonging a near-perfect date with Eden a moment too long, Adam says his goodbyes as he’s literally going up in smoke. Dashing through the city, he hurls himself into the ocean and in one incredibly seamless sustained shot, we watch agog as he’s sucked back up out of the water and hurled through space into the next atmosphere.
For all it’s sumptuous symmetry, with frames in every scene that you might want to hang on a wall, Solanas gets so bogged down with the fundamentally silly science supporting the sweep of his outsized visuals that character is only ever an afterthought.
It’s all too easy to zone out (as I did both times watching the film) with all the yakking about upper and lower inversions and hyper infusion. When they’re not trying to illuminate convoluted, sketchy science, Dunst and Sturgess spend their time making gooey, green screen eyes at one another and it’s never enough to makes us believe in a love that defies two atmospheres and spans their entire lives.
When Adam and Eden fall in love as children, reaching out to one another from respective mountain peaks and almost touching, the widescreen divide of just a few feet feels positively enormous. It’s a mystically astonishing image that came to Solanas in a dream and was the inspiration for his film, but any sense of majesty is consistently undermined by Adam’s breathy, intrusive, voiceover.
Talking about ridiculous flying pancakes and the pollen of pink bees with such awestruck reverence you feel as though you’re listening to Keanu Reeves’ audition tape for a Terrence Malick movie, that same kind of stupefied “whoa” translates to the performances. When he enters Transworld for the first time you can see Sturgess shifting between imagined wide-eyed wonder and even wider-eyed wonder as he takes in all those tennis balls standing in for opulent, monolithic buildings on the green screen stage where the scene was no doubt shot.
These approaches are nigglingly problematic but the sheer amount of exposition-dumping in the first five minutes explaining the three basic laws of double gravity stands as the film’s nadir; a da Vinci-style diagram tunted into a power point presentation that’s thrown on screen with interminable narration. It’s made all the worse after watching the Blu-ray special features, in which we learn of an epic, century-spanning opening sequence which would have shown all this rather than told.
Upside Down has the distinction of being one of the most expensive Spanish co-productions ever mounted, but not it would seem, expensive enough by Hollywood standards to fully justify its high concept.
This would-be magical realist fairy tale can at least boast of offering something we’ve never seen before, so from that perspective it’s easy to recommend making an evening of it and simply enjoying the spectacle. A pity then, that like much spectacle, (Hollywood or otherwise) it crucially lacks human purpose. The film’s lavishly rendered craftsmanship is so aggressively pre-vized, it tends to favour the immaculate over the visceral. Together, Dunst and Sturgess are as beautiful as the film around them (Dunst more so than ever before), but as actors they’ve given little to do and we the audience, even less to care about.
A version of this review was first published by Cine Outsider on July 2, 2013