Upside Down (2013; Dir.: Juan Solanas)
By Daniel Barnes
*NOTE: This is the spec review that I wrote when I applied to become the Sacramento News & Review film critic in July 2013. It was never published until now. Look for my list of the Top 25 Features and Top 10 Documentaries released since I became the SN&R film critic later this week.
Viewers of Upside Down can be forgiven for assuming that writer/director Juan Solanas saw the scene in Inception where the city folds in on itself and decided to set an entire film there, no matter how threadbare the plot.
However, Solanas’ $60 million sci-fi romance, shot in 2010 but newly released to Video OnDemand services, has been gathering dust since before Inception was released, so at least give him credit for visualizing a vast sky of urban sprawl before Christopher Nolan. And while you’re giving him credit for a nifty visual, you can also discredit him for the rest of this sloppy dud, which attempts to stretch a cocktail napkin concept into a feature-length film.
In an example of the leaden symbolism that permeates Upside Down, Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst play Adam and Eden, star-crossed lovers from twin planets separated by both prejudice and gravitational pulls. Dunst’s Eden Moore is a privileged girl from the top planet, ruled by a corporate regime that oppresses and exploits the neighboring planet of Sturgess’ Adam. They somehow know they’re the “top planet” even though the “bottom planet” appears to be above them at all times, one of many nagging holes the viewer is simply required to roll with.
Adam and Eden meet on twin mountaintops as children, both appearing upside down to each other and each subject to their home planet’s gravity, eventually sparking a forbidden romance. They’re lovers from different worlds…literally! They’re being pulled apart…literally! She’s socially above him…literally! This is what substitutes for cleverness in a film that can’t even play by its own myriad rules.
Earnest and tedious, Upside Down is lean on narrative and long on gobbledygook. Sturgess provides a lengthy opening narration in order to explain the central conceit, and it’s a bad sign when the first few lines of a movie simultaneously set up a gimmick (“double gravity”), a MacGuffin (“inverse matter” from the top planet is highly coveted) and an artificial ticking clock (inverse matter also allows bottom planet denizens to briefly walk up top before catching fire). In case that’s not enough, magical pink pollen, “inverse rain” and floating pancakes are all introduced and dismissed within the first few minutes.
It’s established that the twin planets are inhabited by people with standard human needs – they drive cars, hold jobs, need money, watch game shows, go to group therapy and collect stamps. Yet Solanas encourages Sturgess and Dunst, both very appealing actors who are bland when unchallenged, to give gooey-eyed, Faerie Tale Theatre performances, and as a pair, they don’t possess the necessary chemistry to make us care.
This mingling of special effects epic and high-concept headiness seems especially tailored for Dunst, who trod similar ground in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but Upside Down has nowhere near the ambition of that excellent and unsettling 2011 film. What we have here is closer to The Adjustment Bureau, the Matt Damon genre flick in which the properties of time and space are governed by enchanted fedoras.
The illicit interplanetary fling of Adam and Eden gets cut short when they’re attacked by security forces from the top planet, and she suffers an amnesia-inducing blow. Fast-forward a decade and Adam, who has presumed her dead the entire time, spots Eden on a pawn shop television. He learns that she’s an employee of the omnipresent, globes-controlling TransWorld Corporation, and attempts to reconnect with her by applying for a job at their headquarters, a literal skyscraper touching down on both planets.
In a film otherwise dominated by a dull color palette and overrun with CGI-slathered landscapes, this is where Solanas pulls off his most arresting visual: an eternal stretch of inverted office cubicle labyrinths that looks like a sci-fi nightmare vision of the famous tracking shot from King Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd.
Unfortunately, this is also where the characters and their dangerous quest to reunite should start to interest us more than parsing the inconsistent laws of double gravity. Instead, as Adam straps on a vest of illegally obtained inverse matter to pose as a top planet citizen and win Eden back, it’s where all attempts at tension turn into tedium and Solanas’ creative gears grind to a halt.