There’s a small, but wonderful slice of the cinesphere containing movies that might not be terribly successful on the whole, but are so abandonedly ambitious and wildly inventive that they take on a charm all their own. Upside Down wishes it was even that good. Beginning with an exposition dump courtesy of some overexcited voiceover by star Jim Sturgess, then going into a prologue, all before the actual, you know, story begins, we come to learn that we’ll be spending time on twin, interlocked planets – one affluent (“Up Top”), the other destitute (“Down Below”) – with their own opposing forces of gravity. Unlike the way gravity actually works, here residents and objects are beholden to the gravity of whatever planet from which they originated. So if someone’s trying to do a little class-climbing, it won’t be long before they’re discovered, because they’ll be – wait for it – upside down.
But this being a very stock sci-fi story, those rules don’t apply to Adam (Stugess), man. See, as a youngster, he met Eden (Kirsten Dunst) as they were both hiking in some mountain areas that come damn close to touching one another (these worlds are really close together), and they fell in love almost instantly. One day, while smooching, some military types from Up Top found them, and apparently it’s cool to just shoot poor people, so an accident occurs, Eden is dropped, and a blow to her head completely erases her memories. So when the story actually starts up, ten years later, and they’re given cause to finally see one another again, she can’t remember a damn thing, but he remains desperately in love with her. “Picture The Vow meets Every Science Fiction Movie,” somebody said in a pitch meeting.
Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh, but I went in wide-eyed and open-hearted, and was met with a very simple, glossy, and very forcefully false portrayal of love at every turn. Every opportunity writer/director Juan Solanas has to give Adam and Eden (ugh) a reason to be in love with one another, some modicum of specificity, he rejects, leaving us with nothing to latch onto other than “they’re the lead characters, so of course they should be together.” An entire lunch date breezes by in a montage of giggles and badly-improvised small talk. Nothing connects, and we have no reason to hope these two will. Sturgess and Dunst have always been immensely earnest performers, and are charming screen presences for it, but they’re given no distinguishing traits. They’re playing archetypes, but aren’t quite bold enough to turn that into compelling cinema.
On top of that, Solanas layers on this totally ludicrous story. Adam has been toiling away during those ten missing years in a sort of run-down repair shop, working on an anti-aging face cream, until he sees Eden on TV, representing TransWorld, the Corporation that manages basically everything between these two worlds (and seems to have governmental powers, though the political system is never made clear). So he decides, “hey, I’ll work there, find a way to meet her,” and gets a job there through no discernible means. Literally, he just shows up one day and starts working. There he meets Bob (Timothy Spall), and the two start exchanging things from their opposite worlds, which also makes no sense because it’s established right away that Transworld scans you upon entrance and exit to prevent theft, and if you’ve broken any rule (like, say, the stated rule about no smuggling material in from the opposite world), you get the boot. Adam has to actually deal with the mechanics of going Upside Down (wehoa) in order to meet Eden, which is certainly fun to watch in a sort of dancing-on-the-ceiling way (only without the dancing), but he stays that way for quite awhile; at least an hour, probably more. Wouldn’t his head explode?
This isn’t even getting into the sheer in(s)anity of the final five minutes, which is like a Hail-Mary-pass of incompetent storytelling that is so bereft of foundation, motivation, or emotional satisfaction, I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. There’s a good story buried in Upside Down, and Solanas is (perhaps rightfully) very excited about the images he’s given license to create, but the specific choices he makes are really undeveloped, lazy, and poorly wrought. I’m all for an air of mystery in science fiction, but given his intent to make sure the Rules of This World are very specifically spelled out in the introduction, he perhaps would’ve been better off developing a few more. Or even adhering to those he did. The film is certainly earnest as all get-out, which goes a long way with me, but it never gives us a reason to be as excited as it. The romance is never complicated nor layered enough for any reasonable attachment, and the plot is far too simple to provide any involvement. As much as one wants to give some love to wild ambition, sometimes even that is in short supply.