Gravity’s a downer, man. Doubly so if you just happen to live, as Upside Down stars Jim Sturgess (Adam) and Kirsten Dunst (Eden) unfortunately do, in “the only known solar system with double gravity.”
Here’s the rub with that: Adam lives on the planet Down Below, Eden’s on the nearby planet Up Top. Yet for all the proximity, ne’er the twain is supposed to meet; stubbly faced brunette cannot exchange precious bodily fluids with smooth-skinned blonde. According to the laws of physics – or at least fantasy filmmaking – all matter must obey the gravity of the world in which it is located. Because Down Below and Up Top exert equal but opposite pull, Adam’s “down” is Eden’s “up,” and vice-versa. Worse, Up Top is an affluent, clean, well-lit place (Edenish, in other words), lording it over Down Below, which is like Detroit at its worst – everyone’s poor and has to ride bikes! – and everything is coloured indigo and there’s too much rain. The only approved link between these disparate worlds, in fact, is a tower owned and operated by Transworld, your classic megacorp, part Tyrell from Blade Runner, part Estée Lauder.
Got that? No worries if you haven’t. For all the rigours of its pseudo-science, its flashes of socio-political allegory and the frequently spectacular effects of its Escher-like production design, Upside Down is no more than one big-budget, gussied-up fairy tale – a topsy-turvy Romeo and Juliet, with Down Below playing Planet Montague to Up Top’s Planet Capulet as Sturgess and Dunst embody the laws of attraction that have little truck with those, man-made or natural, that say two hearts cannot beat as one.
As ever, the Adam-Eden romance begins when each is very young. The first of what becomes many encounters occurs when Adam, climbing high and lonely above the cloud line of the Sage Mountains, meets an upside-down Eden who’s been climbing a corresponding Up Top mountain range in search of a lost dog. Eventually their illicit affection blossoms to the point that Adam (literally) ropes her into his world. This, of course, only provokes a bloody confrontation with the authorities, leaving each soul-mate stranded and incommunicado on their respective planets for the next 10 years. Stranded, that is, until fate and something called “inverse matter” brings them together again.
A Canada-France co-production, Upside Down is never less than watchable. But over time, the viewer begins to crave a story and characters as complex as the universe Argentine-born director-writer Solanas (The Man Without a Head, Northeast) has put on the screen. Soon enough the worlds of Up Top and Down Below feel like distractions, CGI Potemkin villages. Certainly the pseudo-science is complex, occasionally resulting in some impishly charming moments (Question: How does a Down Below male urinate in an Up Top bathroom? Answer: With great difficulty.) But mostly it’s bewildering. Hokum, moreover, can only go so far; without even a semblance of a sophisticated, compelling narrative, the viewer becomes irritated, disengages, then fastens on anomalies. For instance, why, for all its seeming omnipotence and powers of intimidation, does Transworld appear to have so few surveillance cameras and such skimpy security protocols?
Another flaw is in the casting. While Dunst is radiant throughout, well worthy of Adam’s quest, Sturgess’s Adam is too much the puppy dog to be a convincing suitor. As a result, their great passion feels less like an emotional necessity than a cog in the great engine of plot. Upside Down finally is a case of reverse priorities – there’s too much outside, not enough inside.