Nobody goes into a love story hoping for scientific rigor and a strict adherence to lab-tested, mathematically consistent laws of physics. So in theory, it doesn’t matter that Juan Solanas’ science-fiction romance Upside Down makes not the slightest grain of sense. Its story about two lovers (Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst) from twin worlds with conflicting gravity is meant as a metaphor for any of the seemingly vast gulfs that can come between people. That said, there’s a right way to handle this kind of metaphor (as Another Earth proved), and it involves focusing on the way an unlikely plotline can offer a fresh new angle on universal emotions. Upside Down instead handles it the wrong way, by obsessively harping on plot points that don’t remain consistent for five minutes in a row. Moment for moment, Upside Down is the most embarrassing, hilarious, obliviously stupid movie since M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, and its constant pursuit of a striking image over any other consideration undermines it at every turn.
As Sturgess explains in a breathy, self-important, tell-don’t-show voiceover at the beginning of the film, he and Dunst live on abutting planets that each have their own gravity, which remains consistent for items moved from one world to the other. So any matter transferred from Dunst’s rich, domineering planet (colloquially, “Up Top”) to Sturgess’ subjugated, industrial-wasteland planet (“Down Below”) pulls upward into the sky toward its homeworld, and vice versa. This “inverse matter” also gradually heats up to the point of combustion, to the point where impoverished Down Below residents steal tiny bits of forbidden Up Top metal to warm their hovels.
Sturgess and Dunst meet in childhood, each of them standing on a windblown, atmosphere-scraping mountaintop and shouting across the gulf between worlds. They fall in love, and start making the perilous, highly illegal, but surprisingly easy transit between planets, with Sturgess tossing a rope across the gap to yank Dunst across like a hundred-pound balloon. But then they’re caught and separated, and Dunst develops amnesia. So a decade later, Sturgess goes to work for TransWorld, the oppressive Big Brother-esque corporation that dominates both planets. While working as a chemist, trying to turn “pink pollen” from pink, world-traversing bees into a gravity-canceling agent, he tries to gain access to Dunst to revive her memory of their former relationship.
Exasperating idiocy abounds throughout Upside Down, starting with the entire premise of sticky gravity, and two planets nestled against each other, stable and close enough to bridge with a building or a rope. But more damning is the way the writers don’t seem to understand their own basic rules. Why doesn’t Sturgess, who is presumably made of matter, burst into flames after prolonged exposure to Up Top? Why can people consume food and drink from the opposite world without ill effects? Given that TransWorld jealously monitors Sturgess’ every movement, why doesn’t it notice him stealing vast amounts of inverse material, or smuggling his magical pollen from world to world? When Dunst meets someone she doesn’t remember, why is she vaguely peeved rather than excited at the chance to connect with her lost past? Nothing in the film follows from what’s gone before, and the overall air of gasping intensity just heightens the sense of incredulity.
But even if the story made sense, the characters wouldn’t. Sturgess and Dunst couldn’t be blander or less interesting; when they finally reunite, they have nothing to say to each other, and no basis for connection. The only remotely interesting thing about their idealized but empty love is the obstacles in its way; in fact, the only interesting thing about them as people is those obstacles. And when their issues are resolved—out of nowhere, in an abrupt, willfully moronic shrug of an ending—the movie necessarily slams to an end. Upside Down is a visually striking movie, in the cold-and-sterile realm of Gattaca or Equilibrium, but on an Inception scale. The rich CGI landscapes include a wide variety of startlingly beautiful images, like a vast, world-bridging office that encompasses floor and ceiling alike, or a tumble from the surface of one world to the other. It’s a thousand fanvids waiting to happen. Virtually anything viewers eventually cut together from this footage will hold together better and be more enjoyable than the movie itself.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Upside Down’s Spoiler Space.