Friday, March 11, 2016

Upside Down Review

Generally when we think of sci-fi stories or films we think of action, aliens, and disastrous effect of bizarre technologies. We rarely think of sci-fi in terms of drama or romance, but there are examples of those unusual stories in film such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence and The Adjustment Bureau. In 2012 a Canadian-French romantic sci-fi film was released and the trailer was positively fascinating. It took a while for me to get around to it, but the movie did not disappoint. Upside Down shows us an incredibly unique setting and some amazing camera work.
Ever since Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) fell in love as teens, their bond has faced astronomical odds. The pair are separated not just by social class and a political system bent on keeping them apart, but also by a freak planetary condition: they live on twinned worlds with gravities that pull in opposite directions-he on the poverty-stricken planet below, she on the wealthy, exploitative world above. Their budding but illicit romance screeches to a tragic halt when interplanetary-border patrol agents catch them and Eden suffers an apparently fatal fall. But when, ten years later, Adam learns she is alive and working at a vast corporation whose towering headquarters connects their planets, he sets out on a dangerous quest to infiltrate the company and the upper world to reconnect with her.
Like so many sci-fi and fantasy movies Upside Down starts off with a prologue that simultaneously sets up the story and explains the physics of the twin world gimmick in ways that will more or less satisfy the average moviegoer, or at least keep them from asking pesky questions about the lack of orbits or how the twinned worlds can have sunrises and sunsets and the like. Unfortunately the writer-director Juan Diego Solanas has made the bizarre decision to explain these details entirely through Adam's voiceover rather than showing us how it works. That always bothers me since movies are a visual storytelling medium, so why not show us how things work rather than having a narration? But it serves its purpose and we quickly understand how the mechanics of this setting works and understand the risks our protagonists are taking right from the get go. The setting reminds me of the 1927 Fritz Lang movie Metropolis, in which society has been literally split into two unequal classes; the rich living in an impossibly luxurious city in the sky and ruthlessly exploiting the resources and labor of the working class that dwells below ground in poverty. The setting in Upside Down simply has fascinating and bizarre physics to further complicate the socioeconomic divide.
Another complaint that I have about the movie is the fact that there is a highly interesting setting, but a rather weak screenplay. This twin-world concept is a premise that could inspire any number of fantastical stories, but the screenplay is content to do a simple Romeo and Juliet retread about two lovers from opposite worlds fighting to be together. And since the young-lovers plot device is the main focus of this story, why needlessly complicate things with the even more cliché trope of amnesia and force the other to jump through hoops just to jog her memory? The screenplay also suffers from some dialogue that occasionally sounds unnatural, almost as if the script had gone through a couple of languages in Google Translate before finally being translated into English. That's not to say it's all bad, it just sounds somehow off from time to time.
But having said that, I am willing to overlook some amateurish storytelling if the movie in question is bold or stylish enough to make up for narrative shortcomings, and Upside Down is one such movie. Practically every scene is crammed full of visual marvels that range from an endless sea of office drones, to a grand ballroom with dancers twirling about on both the floor and the ceiling, to Adam escaping some flames by jumping up into a nearby river. My goodness, I don't know how many of these visuals were achieved. Probably with a lot of CGI, but it looks as though a whole lot of practical effects were incorporated as well. And it's not just the big special effects displays like Eden being lowered from Down Below to Up Top by a rope, making her resemble a balloon on a string. Subtle little things like having an item from the other world and having to rest it on the underside of the desk so it doesn't fall upwards are used with such casual nonchalance that it really sells the bizarre physics of the setting and makes it hard to take your eyes from the screen. The results are so stunning I would gladly take a couple images shown here over most anything from recent blockbuster epics any day. It's the kind of imagery where you could pause the movie at any given moment and just study the image as one might study a painting. Here's the trailer to give you an idea of what this movie looks like:

Upside Down is such a gorgeous movie to watch that I half expect Terry Gilliam to have wished he'd thought of some of the visuals used here. In spite of its wonderfully unique and fascinating premise and a talented cast, the story fails to offer much in the way of a compelling drama or romance to anchor it's dazzling visuals. It evokes no serious emotions other than awe and wonder at how beautiful it looks. The movie clearly had big dreams, but they never quite pan out the way it obviously hoped it would. I could see most viewers either interpreting this as some kind of crackpot masterpiece or dismiss it as one of the silliest pieces of cinema they've ever seen. I enjoyed Upside Down enough that I'd consider getting my own copy, but not because the story was good. It's just so darn neat to watch! As of writing this, Upside Down is streaming on Netflix and is by no means a waste of time to watch it there.

What are some other non-action sci-fi movies you've seen? Were they also worth watching? Comment below and let me know!

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