In Juan Solanas‘ fantasy romance “Upside Down,” twin planets exist with opposite gravities and social restrictions of Dickensian thematic heft. “Up Top” boasts gleaming skyscrapers, well-dressed citizens, and the majority of wealth, while “Down Below” struggles in poverty and mud-stained existence. Between the two, Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) live out their own interstellar “Romeo and Juliet,” torn apart by family as well as physics. If a smirk emerged from hearing any of these names or locations, it will remain over the course of Solanas’ indulgent swirl of symbolism; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of visual splendor and escapist fun to temporarily break up the expression.
For a sci-fi film, its overall success can be traced back to its first five minutes, and if its world’s internal logic and stakes are effectively and firmly established. Usually, an opening news broadcast attempts to layer entertainment over exposition. Solanas, with his claim to two different planets, instead just has Sturgess directly deliver what we need to know via breathy narration. The choice marks a worrying trend: a skip over subtlety for clunky exposition, and a mechanical fascination with the narrative’s minor changes to the genre.
Through Sturgess’ helpful explanation, we learn the full set of rules that govern Adam and Eden’s worlds: All matter is bound to the gravity of the world from which it comes, that same matter becomes anti-matter once it crosses atmospheres, and after a certain time period, that anti-matter will burn up. They first come into play as we’re introduced to the couple as children, when they meet atop a towering mountain peak on their respective planets — Adam from Down Below, Eden from Up Top.
Quickly falling in love into adulthood, they continue to meet in private and make out in mid-gravitational hover. But when border police discover their location — injuring Adam and sending Eden off a cliff to her presumed death — it isn’t until ten years later that Adam sees the exact image of Eden on TV working at the corporate giant Transworld. With his love interest now miraculously revived, Adam finds a new determination to win her back for good, even if it means swapping atmospheres to do so.
Much of Sturgess’ journey is shot from ground level, as Solanas is obsessed with his low-angle shots revealing the parallel cityscapes splashed across the sky. Like “Another Earth,” the unnerving effect produced by the environment lingers in the background of every scene, but rarely in a necessary way. That motif transfers indoors as well, as Adam lands a desk job at Transworld by pitching an anti-aging cream built from the pollen of pink bees — a phenomenon as unexplained as the numerous quibbles of physics throughout the film’s conceit. However, where the film really falters is not in its iffy science — that can be forgiven — but in the emotional center of the narrative: the romance between Adam and Eden.
Sturgess and Dunst are two actors who have the potential to excel; “Heartless” and “Melancholia” both hold notable performances from them that serve the story and its themes well. Here though, Solanas does the pair no favors. He repeatedly flashes back to their pre-teen mountaintop beginnings, and submits excruciating child acting as the only motivation for why we should care later. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. As a result, Sturgess feigns glassy eyes throughout and a wrinkled crease of emotion, while Dunst is a bundle of irksome twitchy energy as she rekindles her romance with Adam.
Only one lead role captures the pulpy tone that the premise initially suggests: Timothy Spall as Bob Boruchowitz, a Transworld worker who befriends Adam about halfway into the film, is a garrulous jolt of American-accented energy that simultaneously infects the rest of the cast. With him, Solanas has the confidence to inject a breezy charm to his visual approach and setpieces, and he and production designer Alex McDowell experiment and explore some unique facets to the two worlds: heating an apartment with burning anti-matter, or creating a suit of anti-matter, as Adam does, to visit Eden Up Top. All conjure a smile, as finally some ingenuity sneaks its way into the proceedings.
Like Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis‘ “Cloud Atlas,” where the film’s makeup effects forced you to reassess your views on their aesthetic purpose, so too does “Upside Down” with its contrasted visual language. You could choose to see the effect — oftentimes featuring two characters interacting while upside down from one another — as a series of cameras and sets rotated 180 degrees. But with repetition, the intial sense of gimmickry falls away and the viewer is properly adjusted to the ride.
It’s a fleeting feeling though, reaching its apex with Adam and Eden’s extended date at a fancy restaurant Up Top. As his suit of anti-matter slowly burns through his protective clothes and onto his skin, the governing laws come crashing back in as a suspenseful reminder — How long can Adam woo Eden before being engulfed in flames? The answer is unclear, since that fatal deadline seems to shorten and extend with dramatic necessity. The first time, it seems like five minutes, the next — on the date — two hours. However, the latter ends with one of the finest moments of the film: half on fire and getting worse, Adam approximates a location in Down Below above him, and launches himself off a bridge into the sea. We then watch underwater as he discards his anti-matter suit, and flings back upwards across atmospheres in one breathtaking shot.
The scene is effective because of its fusion of character stakes and visual wonder — an effect that Solanas rarely finds elsewhere. The film entertains in fits and starts, threading a gaudy, orchestral screech of a score throughout, and it eventually concludes with a cluttered, nonsensical climax — a “Crash Bandicoot”-esque platform chase across zeppelin wreckage (as bad as it sounds). “Upside Down” is a film built on binary elements — lavishly and ambitiously executed — yet with its laughably undercooked romantic core, it remains foolishly stubborn towards anything more nuanced. [C-]