If you get can past the Looney Tunes astrophysics, it’s a nice love story . . .
STARRING: Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, James Kidnie, Holly O’Brien
2013, 103 Minutes, Directed by: Juan Solanas
Remember that upside down kiss in the 2002 Spider-man? Imagine a whole movie built around that image. Such is the romantic fantasy Upside Down, which can be stunning to look at but will have those who know astronomy and physics laughing their heads off. It is all a metaphor, and no more possible than Middle Earth or Hogwarts.
The movie is set on two worlds that are bound together in orbit around a single star. The worlds are decidedly Earthlike, but the upside world is a planet of wealth while the downside people are struggling to get by. It doesn’t help that the upside world extracts resources from downside which helps provide for their luxury. In an animated prologue, we learn a few other important facts, chief among them being that one’s own gravity is determined by the planet of one’s birth. It’s a convenient way to prevent mixing of the two planets, especially since the only way to counteract the effect is to use material from the other planet as a counterweight. Unfortunately, it has a tendency to burst into flames after a short period of time.
If you can swallow this preposterous premise, you’re ready to dive into the love story.
Adam (Jim Sturgess) is from downside but he’s been experimenting with pollen from flowers pollinated by bees which are able to travel between the two worlds. This gives it very interesting properties allowing it to counteract gravity. Adam is working on a beauty cream using the pollen – sags and wrinkles are lifted away – when he spots Eden (Kirsten Dunst) in a broadcast from upside. Ten years before they had met and then separated. Such unauthorized interplanetary contact is strictly forbidden. When he discovers that she works for the mega-corporation that spans both planets (and helps enforce the economic disparities), he takes a position there to try to find her.
What follows are the various problems they face ranging from her amnesia to his trying to figure out he can move upside down – or right side up – in order to meet with her. Bob (Timothy Spall) is an upside worker who takes a liking to Adam even as most of his colleagues treat the downsiders with contempt. There are plot loopholes to match the scientific ones, and just why the social barrier exists or is so strictly enforced is never really explained. We do know some downsiders must have money because they are seen tangoing at an exclusive restaurant where the ceiling is inhabited by visiting upsiders doing the same.
What is expected of the viewer is simply to swallow the material whole and focus on the love story. In return you are rewarded with a series of fantastic images, from characters falling up to their own worlds, Adam using an upside bathroom and forgetting his personal gravity is in the other direction, and Adam and Eden consummating their love in mid-air. We see them fully clothed, but as they embrace and rotate, that Spider-man kiss looks awfully tame.
If the film has any flaw beyond its ridiculous astrophysics, it is that the talented Kirsten Dunst is woefully underused. The story is nearly all from Adam’s perspective, and so she is primarily there as the object of his desire. The character’s amnesia deprives of her of much in the way of motivation for most of the film.
Still, as romantic fantasies go, Upside Down is all about the willing suspension of disbelief. If you can play along, it’s a beautiful love story. If you can’t, even the best special effects won’t save it.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.