Love vs. gravity in charming, implausible sci-fi romance, ‘Upside Down’
If Upside Down were in print, it would be an outline, not a complete novel. The grand sweep of the story is there, the big, climactic scenes are all plotted out exactly where they should be, and marvelous, fanciful, poetic images decorate key passages. What’s missing from Juan Solanas’ ambitious, interplanetary sci-fi romance are the details—the solid conceptual underpinning that would make it all plausible, and a final polish on the dialogue that would bring the characters and their unique story to life.
It’s a very cool premise. In an alternative solar system, two unnamed planets are locked in an eternal pas de deux. They are so close together, the landscape of each planet is visible hovering in the sky above the other, but the opposing gravitational forces keep the inhabitants of each planet firmly rooted to their home world. Although at certain high altitudes, the twin worlds almost touch, intermingling between those “Up top” and those “Below” is strictly verboten by law and custom.
A rigorous caste system has developed between the sophisticated, high-tech Up Worlders and their counterparts Below—which is basically a windswept slum. The only official conduit between the two planets is the TransWorld tower, a corporate enterprise that buys up raw material for fuel from the Down Worlders and “sells it back to us at prices we can’t afford.”
But one day, a Down World boy named Adam climbs a craggy peak gathering supplies for his herbalist aunt, and meets Up World girl, Eden. By the time they’re teenagers in love, Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) have figured out a system of ropes and weights allowing them to defy law and gravity to spend stolen time together. (In one of many charming visual moments, Eden attaches herself to the underside of a jutting crag, like a bat, obeying the gravity of her own planet, to stay put long enough for Adam to kiss her.)
Ten years after they are forcibly separated, Adam is working in some sort of lowly machine shop (on a project involving gravity-defying pink bee pollen) when he sees on TV that Eden is now an executive at TransWorld. Amnesia has wiped out her memories of him, but he gets a research job at the TransWorld tower (with his “anti-aging” cream) to woo her back—certain that true love can conquer all, even gravity. This involves dangerous ruses, from strapping on “inverse matter” ingots to stabilize him for a short time in the Up World (before they inevitably burn up), to running afoul of dire security clearances. Meanwhile, Adam and a co-worker (Timothy Spall) work on a radical new application for his anti-gravity formula.
There are lovely moments, from the antique cut-outs in the credit sequence, to lovers twirling gracefully in midair like a Chagall painting. When Adam throws himself off a bridge into an ocean and strips off his burning ingots, he falls straight up into the sky, into the ocean on his own world. But chase scenes are chaotic; it’s impossible to keep track of whose gravity is dominant from frame to frame.
(Anyway, isn’t the concept of “up” and “down” relative? Standing on the ground in the Up World, isn’t the so-called Down World overhead? Also, it seems that if the planets are in constant rotation together, they ought to show a different face to each other at different times of the day or month, like the Earth and the moon.)
Solanas’ writing can be as tongue-tied as a lovesick swain. Whenever Adam and Eden have an actual conversation, Sturgess’ puppy-dog exuberance can only carry them so far in the absence of coherent dialogue. It’s as if Solanas just told them, “Act like you’re in love,” and let the cameras roll; in one key scene, Adam cries “I can’t believe it!” about six times in a couple of short minutes.
And beyond the evil corporation motif (and border-patrol posses, with rifles and dogs, unduly quaint for such a techie society), Solanas misses the chance to infuse his tale of opposite worlds locked in eternal conflict with the kind of socio-political edge that might give it deeper resonance. It’s often charming as a tender-hearted love story, but with a bit more attention to detail, it could have been something really special.
★★1/2 (out of four)
With Kirsten Dunst, Jim Sturgess, and Timothy Spall.
Written and directed by Juan Solanas.
A Millennium Entertainment release. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.