Beautiful and Dumb: Upside Down

03/14/2013 4:00 AM |

Upside Down
Directed by Juan Solanas

This romantic sci-fi fable and multi-national production provokes that evergreen question: how was this movie made? Supposedly it cost around $50 million, no small sum but far less than I would’ve imagined necessary to produce an entire alternate universe where two planets sit in space, close but not touching, sharing an atmosphere but with opposing gravitational pulls—and socioeconomic statuses: one is designated Up, the other Down (it’s not confusing which planet is posh and which contains the polluted underclass—though it might be for inhabitants of both planets, who would all see the other world as “up”).

This isn’t lo-fi sci-fi like Another Earth, where the second planet looms in the distance, easy to paint digitally into any scene. Upside Down gives us two vast, teeming cities, connected by a vast, teeming office building, which includes vast, teeming offices where workers sit on both the ceilings and the floors. Apart from a few dodgy effects shots here and there, the movie looks great and—in its stylized, blue-tinged, lens-flare-heavy way—quite convincing. What it accomplishes under a relatively trim budget is impressive; it’ll make you despair that those junky-looking Twilight movies cost twice as much.

But the script goes beyond belief, too, provoking a tweaked version of that central question: seriously, how was this made? As with its visual wonders, Upside Down‘s blather presents itself in the movie’s earliest moments: Adam (Jim Sturgess) narrates with the hushed, self-impressed dippiness of someone convinced beyond all reason that he has a grand tale to tell, imparting all manner of nonsense that comprises the movie’s mythology. Dual gravity separates the haves from the have-nots; everyone is stuck with the gravity of their home planet, so there’s no easy floating between the two; you can counteract your gravity with “inverse matter” from the opposite planet, but prolonged contact between inverse matter and its opposite will cause the inverse matter to burn up.

In other words, the movie plays by rules more fantasy than science fiction, and fair enough: the movie needs the dual planets to loom close together and just out of reach, not crash into each other or fuck up each other’s tides. (Though even the fantastical version of this scenario left me wondering what life is like for each planet’s other half, which presumably hears a lot about the up-and-down class dynamics on the other side of the world without experiencing it firsthand. Do citizens of the “down there” planet who can’t see an “up there” still resign themselves to poverty?) It needs inverse matter to provide means, just difficult enough, for Adam to reconnect with Eden (Kirsten Dunst), his lost childhood love—they met out in the woods, where mountains from each planet almost touch. When Adam must focus on the practical-fantastical obstacles in his way—how to infiltrate the other half of that massive office building and take Eden on a date without burning up—Upside Down briefly resembles a Terry Gilliam-ish heist movie, minus Gilliam’s satirical streak and plus a whole lot of dippy romance.

Sturgess (Across the Universe; One Day) has become a patron saint of dippy romance, a less dangerous Ewan McGregor. Here his boyish charm turns literal, recalling an actual child: he quivers with so much emotion that he seems on constant verge of meltdown. Dunst has cultivated a sadder, less pixie-ish aura in her recent work (it’s as if her Elizabethtown role wore her out) and draws on a little of that as Eden, but writer-director Juan Solanas can’t stop feeding her cringeworthy lines, including some movie-wrapping exposition perfectly encapsulating the movie’s creation of a rule-heavy world where things nonetheless seem to happen for no real reason beyond patchwork screenwriting.

The arbitrariness of those sci-fi details would be easier to take were the human details not downright inane: Eden doesn’t remember Adam because she has a case of soap-opera amnesia. Adam is told not to speak with citizens of Up, yet his loud and public conversations with his Up buddy Bob Boruchowitz (Timothy Spall) are entirely ignored by everyone around them. All of the main characters seem vaguely bipolar, becoming more ecstatic and more upset than warranted about every plot turn. Even the simplest, dopiest allusions torture themselves into inexplicably mixed metaphors: Dunst’s character is called Eden instead of Eve because… Eden seemed more subtle?

Both sides of the movie just won’t quit. It offers scene after scene of breathtaking images: Eden floating under a cliff, hiding from gravity long enough to kiss Adam (Dunst’s similarly upside-down Spider-Man kiss seems like a major visual cue for the movie, along with the shot of the folding city from Inception); Adam giving into Up’s gravity and plummeting from one ocean to another; the washed-out white light that breaks through so many windows, beautifully suggesting the double-powered electricity of two cities sitting almost on top of each other. And at every step, the visual imagination is balanced out by an utter lack of textual sense. It’s a pleasure to look at and kind of a pain to actually watch.

Opens March 15