People like to talk about big-budget movies getting swallowed up by the visual effects; the same holds true with more modest projects. Case in point: Upside Down, a would-be intellectual sci-fi film more interested in dazzling our senses than telling us a coherent story. It follows closely in the footsteps of Gattaca and pre-Star Wars efforts like Silent Running. Start with a good concept, then use that to tell a compellingly original story. It gets the first part right, then trips headlong over the second… plummeting to its doom like one of its romantic heroes.
It starts with a very interesting idea: two worlds, each with their own gravity, poised close enough to each other for residents to see the cityscapes on the other side. Residents of the “high” world live decadent lives of the ruling class, while those in the “low” world toil in poverty and filth. Moving back and forth between them is difficult, but metals and other objects from one world fetch a high price in the other, since they essentially defy gravity.
To this, writer-director Juan Solanas adds a tale of star-crossed lovers: the lower-class Adam (Jim Sturgess) and the high-born Eden (Kirsten Dunst). They met on a mountain peak as teenagers, but circumstances kept them separate for many years. When Adam scores a job at the sinister corporation bridging the two worlds, he has a chance to find her again. Of course, he still has to get past that whole “reverse gravity” thing, as well as the oppressive laws preventing the oppressed from interacting with their exploiters.
The Romeo and Juliet scenario never finds any steam on its own. The couple isn’t particularly interesting (despite the nominal chemistry between Dunst and Sturgess), and Solanas throw nothing but melodramatic plot twists at them. How melodramatic? It gets pretty grim: a convenient case of amnesia, an even more convenient job at the evil corporation, and a brewing revolution that never manifests onscreen. None of the ideas add up and the characters at the center of it feel like stand-ins for the real couple… who never actually show up.
When his narrative powers fail him, Solanas turns to voice-over for help, read by Sturgess and containing the kind of tin-ear enthusiasm marked by George Lucas at his worst. It vomits necessary-but-dull exposition at us, then waits breathlessly for us to share in the excitement it can’t convey. The story tropes fall flat on their face, both in terms of compelling drama, and in the myriad rules this strange world contains. Solanas fails to work some of the big ones out, leading to a lot of embarrassing loopholes than never get closed.
Upside Down tries to paper all that over with its impressive visuals, and in that arena if no other, it succeeds admirably. Scenes of Sturgess staring upwards into a skyscraper-laden “roof of the world” fill one with awe, as do clever touches such as dance floors on the ceiling and doors with multiple knobs to accommodate people on both sides of the divide. Unfortunately, its assets end there, and as gorgeous screensaver shots pile up, their impact on our senses rapidly diminishes.
We wouldn’t forgive that kind of shallowness in a gigantic blockbuster, and a film like this is no different. It aims for an intimacy that A-list sci-fi rarely obtains, along with a funky concept that could do wonders in the right hands. Said hands are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, Upside Down falls into that old trap of overwhelming us with spectacle before we spot the emptiness beneath. A cardinal sin for such a marvelous idea, as disappointing as it is unforgivable.