Review: Spectacular Inverted Indie Sci-Fi Romance in 'Upside Down'
by Alex Billington
March 19, 2013
"The universe, so full of mysteries…" Of course I would fall in love with a movie that starts with that line. There's an indie sci-fi romance film playing in theaters right now called Upside Down, but no one knows about it, it's not doing that well. It received a couple of dismal reviews from critics, but I went to see it this weekend because I love sci-fi and was very curious based on the concept. Then I went to see it again today. Yea, it's that good. Okay well, maybe not that amazing, but it's something extraordinarily different, visually spectacular. This is an early proclamation, but I think it's 2013's Gattaca (which will mean more in a few years looking back). I don't get all the hate for it and I had to confirm my feelings and see it a second time.
So here's the thing - I don't know where this film came from. It's a French-Canadian co-production, written & directed by Argentinean filmmaker Juan Solanas, released here by Millennium Entertainment without much marketing. I didn't even go to any press screenings, I paid to see this film twice in theaters, thankfully because it was playing near me in the city. Looking back, the first time I might not have been sitting close enough to the rather small screen so after hearing criticisms about the effects, I sat quite close in an almost empty theater this morning for a second time. It was digital projection and damnit, it still looked gorgeous.
The concept alone is what sells Upside Down. It starts out with an explanation that in another distant solar system in this universe, there are two planets that exist next to each other, each with their own gravity, two worlds opposite of each other. Objects from one side maintain their gravitational pull; we learn the love story of opposites Adam & Eden, obviously the Adam & Eve reference (in that world). But this opposites / inverted idea is what makes this so amazing. The fact that it was even envisioned, made, pulled off, and delivered (all outside of the Hollywood system, mind you) in such epic grandeur, with glorious sets, is why I couldn't help but admire every last second of this sci-fi. When did we stop appreciating cinematic spectacle?
Each time I was watching, I kept wondering when these critics lost their interest in the sheer spectacle and awe of cinema? To me, the idea of executing a concept so crazy, so bold, so impossible, in such a beautiful but believable way is impressive on its own. The film isn't perfect, there's a few problems with it and many of them lie within the script, and the love story. Which is, of course, the foundation of the entire film, but there was enough there for me to go with it. I was totally in, and though I knew what would happen, it was the world they were playing in, the concepts Solanas kept pushing, that kept me in awe. Each time I thought "it can never look as good as it just did" there would be another scene that would take my breath away again.
Upside Down starts out quite sad, introducing us to Adam, played by Jim Sturgess, and his rather tragic life, growing up as an orphan and meeting his love, Eden, played by Kirsten Dunst, at childhood before an accident tears them apart. But they're from opposite sides, other worlds, their love could never be anyway. Or could it? The story takes some odd twists here, introducing an amnesia angle which throws a wrench in things, but thankfully doesn't really drown the rest of the story as they get past it quick. The direction does need a bit of work occasionally, as there are scenes with oddly stilted but necessary dialogue, then a few cuts and shots later and we're already emotionally pushed along. Things move fast, then slow, then fast again.
What I really love about the film is the world, and the depths to which Solanas pushes the concept. Not only does he develop some rather complex themes of oppression in the story regarding the top vs. bottom nature of the two worlds (which is interesting, considering they both have the same gravity, so why does one have so much more power over the other?) but he also tosses in things like inverse matter and motifs of balancing science vs. society. Mirroring our world, oil is the commodity that fuels power, and the division between the two worlds is as massive and condescending as our division of wealth in this country. All of these ideas are worked subtly in around a more melodramatic love story, which must be what critics just can't get passed.
The entire film plays with "upside down" in every sense of that concept, both with shots positioned upside down and right side up during certain points, as well as with conversations and performances. To envision a film where almost every last scene involves background effects to make the other world appear in the sky, or trickery to make another person (or objects on them) have the completely opposite gravity, is incredibly bold. But to pull that off and never make me question the believability, but rather "how the hell did they do that?" is what makes me forgive and forget a few screenplay and love story issues in Upside Down. How can anyone who grew up with the spectacle of Star Wars and E.T. not be in awe or entertained by this film, too?
There are so many shots in this that visually, astounded me, and maybe that's part of what kept drawing me back. I wanted to stay in this world, it was brought to life so vividly, so perfectly, with both gravities. Some of the effects in this even outshined a few moments in The Hobbit or Jack the Giant Slayer. The film's few minor mishaps are rather odd - a few visual effects blunders (badly rendered goldfish and dirigible) which I just don't get because so much of it looked so good; plus some questionable wire-work which reminded me of a few moments in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but as with that film, it never really felt like a hindrance. I was still along for the ride. Most of the time in Upside Down I would think - this is what gravity from the other direction would cause. For an outside-of-Hollywood production, this looked phenomenal.
I loved that everything and every idea you would ever want them to play with in a dual gravity world, they explore. From traveling between the top and bottom worlds, to the matter and material on both sides and what happens when it crosses sides, to using the physical properties of matter (from both worlds) in unique, innovative ways. There's a wonderful scene where Adam drops his inverted weights into the ocean of one world, instantly letting the gravity pull him up into the ocean of the other world. It works so much better in context, because the sci-fi world is so immaculately conceived with an unexpected attention to sci-fi detail.
Compared to some of the other indie sci-fi productions I've seen recently (like Lockout or even Dredd), the technical work in Upside Down is vastly more impressive on a small scale. The sets were crafted by Alex McDowell, production designer on Minority Report, Zack Snyder's Watchmen and Man of Steel, and they look exceptional - one of the highlights. There's a mix of dark and gritty, with a slightly "different world" vibe, complimented by visual effects enhancement to finish the world. Solanas' biggest drawback is that he has all the various pieces of a sci-fi classic, but had trouble pulling them all together to tell a fully cohesive and emotionally enlightening story. There's more emotion in the visuals and concept than the love story at the center of the film, but I felt like he balanced it precariously enough to keep me from getting frustrated.
Sturgess holds up the movie at least, with Dunst giving her usual, serviceable smiley performance. The other key character is Bob Boruchowitz, played by English actor Timothy Spall. I am almost certain they wanted Ron Perlman to play this role, but couldn't get him, got Spall instead, and had him mimic Perlman right down to the cigar, stubble, accent and all. It's uncanny and a little jarring to notice, but again, something I could look past especially because it actually meant Spall was trying to do something different here, even though it was just embodying Perlman. Like the entire film - do something different, be something unique, be who you are even if the entire world is going against it. Everything about this film was unique, from the bumble bee pink powder MacGuffin to the beautiful Sage Mountains setting to the whole gravity idea itself.
Back in 1997, Andrew Niccol's Gattaca was a stellar indie sci-fi film that got quietly released, barely made a dent at the box office, was surrounded by much bigger and more exciting sci-fi that overshadowed it, yet still remains a highly regarded favorite among many sci-fi fanatics. That's the destiny I see for Upside Down. Both films have similar themes, even a similar indie slightly-vintage-but-still-sci-fi feel, and will forever be criminally underseen. Alas, I must admit that Gattaca is definitely a notch above, however Upside Down is a spectacular cinematic vision that I am still baffled exists but am thrilled I've had the chance to experience.
For all the cheesier moments and amateur storytelling gaffes in Upside Down, there is incredible behind-the-scenes work, some phenomenal world-building on a practical level, and an awe-inspiring vision behind it all. I am at least happy that someone out there on our world dreamed up a story about two other worlds with their own gravity, and somehow got the time, money, resources and talent together to actually bring it to life on the big screen. They made me believe in this place, get lost on these two worlds where I've never been, but wanted to spend time exploring. To me, that's what great sci-fi is about - crafting an extraordinary world and telling a worthy story in it, even if it's not the best story. "What if love was stronger than gravity?"
Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10