Bear with me as I indulge the opening voiceover of Upside Down, which insists that we learn the three laws of double gravity before the story can be understood: first, two adjacent planets each have an absolute gravitational pull over any objects; second, their gravitational fields have absolute effect over their respective objects and do not interfere with each other; third; objects may be counterweighted by matter from the other world, but after a few hours the contacting matter catches on fire. Jim Sturgess summons all the gravitas he can muster and intones, “These laws are unchangeable. There are no exceptions. Gravity.” The film then spends 100 minutes changing the first two laws and breaking the third all over the place.
Self-seriousness and silliness have a low threshold of mutual tolerance. Jim Sturgess might as well whisper “universe,” “mysteries,” and “double gravity” over fart noises; the voiceover would seem no less profound. Nor would its infantile central romance: two teenagers, Adam (Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten “at least it’s not Eve” Dunst) meet and are shot at by police for breaking the inexplicably harsh law against going to the other world. Eden falls back to her world and breaks her head on the mountaintop. Ten years later, Adam, who works on his poverty-ridden world as an inventor, sees that she is now an employee at the cartoonishly greedy Transworld corporation, which exploits the lower world’s oil for the higher world’s profit. He hatches a dumbfuck scheme to reunite with her, not realizing that she has forgotten her life before the fall.
That plan: get hired by Transworld for his invention of a gravity-defying facial cream, steal matter from the inverse world to weigh himself into the other one, and win Eden’s heart before that inverse matter turns him into a walking pyre. That facial cream, besides being extremely silly, clearly alters those first two laws. To procure the inverse matter, he gives a stamp-collecting Transworld employee rare lower-world stamps. They should be useless firebombs, but as it turns out, matter only catches on fire when that is convenient for the plot. After the movie takes so long to explain its world to the audience, its internal logic collapses and never recovers.
Upside Down’s writer-director Juan Solanas is clearly more in love with excess of production values than he is with nuances of character and story. Adam moves through the opposite offices of Transworld with the most moronic display of subterfuge imaginable, stammering and stumbling through his punishable-by-death trespass without any apparent cover or contingency plans. Thankfully for him, there’s always a plot device ready to move the story along for him, be it a fireproof inverse-matter vest, conveniently-disappeared amnesia, or purple anti-gravity goo.
As if the constant rule-bending and contrivances didn’t render the story oblique enough, it’s more literally obscured by the over-processed visuals. Though the wide shots of the dual worlds display technically impressive visual effects, nearly every image in Upside Down is garishly fussed-over. Shot compositions are overloaded and confusing, camera movements are dizzying and unmotivated, lens flares choke out any surviving clarity, and the film stock’s slight desaturation does little to improve its boring palette of teal and orange.
There’s nothing strictly wrong with Upside Down’s central conceit of a flip-flopped world, except that the film has absolutely no commitment whatsoever to probing the details and inner workings of its universe, and relies on clichés to do almost all of its heavy lifting. There’s no trace of detail or originality beyond its high-and-low concept as laid out in the opening voiceover, and given the film’s total lack of respect for its single distinguishing feature, that’s a scarce merit. One can’t blame Sturgess and Dunst for the total hollowness of their characters, though Sturgess’s mugging is his own trademark.
It’s as though Solanas is consciously straining against refinement, as though subtext and complexity are the enemies of grandeur. Given the choice between a character beat and a spinning crane shot, he will take the crane every time. Sci-fi fantasies like this should expand our understanding of our world. When we see a character react to an unfamiliar system of science or society, we notice both the internal reactions of the characters, and the ways that the external wonderland is really an extension and expression of the psyche. Up-and-down is a fine idea, but the opposites that really count are big-and-small, inside-and-outside. We marvel at the first, and recognize our own humanity in the second. But it’s hard to recognize anything with all those goddamn lens flares in the way.