I can appreciate high-concept movies, but they do run the risk of being ridiculous in their execution. I went into Juan Solanas’ ambitious Upside Down hopeful that it could capitalize on the potential in its outlandish premise, but fearful that it would end up coming off as overwrought, pretentious, and overly impressed by its own cleverness. I came out with my all trepidations confirmed, and more.
Most science fiction engages in some amount of world-building. Solanas’ script dispenses of that in the first of two agonizing monologues that bookend the movie. We set our scene in two conjoined worlds, each filling the other’s sky. Rules are set out; the major one is that each world has its own gravity, and everything “belongs” to one world or the other, and is governed by its own world’s gravity. If you’re from one world and manage to visit the other, you will walk around on their ceilings as your own world draws you inexorably back down. The other rule is that when matter from each world comes into contact for long enough, it heats up and catches fire.
The two worlds are unbalanced, with one side rich and advanced while the other is poor and deprived. This is played as a random mix of apartheid and colonialism on the part of the side referred to as “Up Above”, which strictly separates itself from “Down Below”, except for the Trans World corporation. The company occupies a tower spanning the two worlds, and exists primarily to ship Down Below oil to Up Above, and sells the resulting electricity back at a premium.
Add to the mix two star-crossed lovers named — and I am absolutely not making this up — Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Bell), who managed to meet as children before being forcibly separated as teenagers. Years later, Adam finds Eden again and takes a position at Trans World in order to try and contact her — with the help of an Up Abover he meets at work (Timothy Spall) — only to find that for no good story-motivated reason she has amnesia and doesn’t remember him.
Now, I’m not going to spend time ridiculing the physics here; this is art, not science, and the entire point is to introduce some fantastic element to shake us out of our comfortable perspective. Besides, I could spend this entire review on how ludicrous and inconsistent this all is, not to mention how ridiculous the prepositional semantics must be, and any number of other points.
I could also spend the entire review on how fast and loose the movie plays with its own rules, despite solemnly intoning that “There Are No Exceptions”. There are countless nits I could pick, but they mostly come back to the fact that the second rule is enforced only when it’s narratively convenient. Jim can take a vest from Down Below and fill it with weights from Up Above in order to stand up straight in that world, but there is a time limit before the metal overheats in contact with the vest and catches fire, providing an obstacle. But later he can instead wear a vest from Up Above that won’t react with the metal, and yet why doesn’t it catch fire when it’s in contact with his own body for the same amount of time? This is just the most glaring of many such examples.
But I can forgive — indeed, I probably have forgiven — any number of preposterous inconsistencies in a premise if they serve the purpose of telling a good and interesting story. And this is where Upside Down fails the most drastically: it’s simply awful as a dramatic narrative. It’s aimless, bringing up any number of possible subjects and saying nothing of substance about any of them save its tepid rehash of a Romeo and Juliet story. The dialogue is atrocious, peppered throughout with saccharine lines like “what if Love is stronger than Gravity?”, which even an angst-ridden high school would-be poet would turn up her nose at. Nothing is explained in a way that makes much sense, except that it needs to happen to advance to the next unmotivated part of the story so that Solanas can say — well, I really don’t know what the hell he’s trying to say.
It’s so bad that even the promise of fantastic visuals is not enough to save this mess. And then it manages to disappoint on those; most of the visuals are stunning backdrops of another city or landscape green-screened in over the sky, and most of the rest are cheap camera and editing tricks. They’re neat, but they’d be just as neat as framed prints of an artist’s fantastic imagination — neater, in fact, since they wouldn’t be burdened by needing to fit into this story. Worse, things really fall apart when the imagery starts moving. The climactic chase is meant to be exciting, but the frame rate drops precipitously and the action looks more like a flipbook than a movie.
High-concept science fiction can absolutely work, even without being particularly plausible, but it must use that concept to advance an interesting and engaging story, and the production must make up for the disbelief we’re asked to suspend. Upside Down does neither, and it all begins from a script that should never have made it past a single editor.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.