Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2013

Upside Down

Then I defy you, gravity!

'Upside Down' is a dopey update on romantic myths against the backdrop of a richly conceived visual paradox

Upside Down
Millennium Entertainment
Director: Juan Solanas
Screenplay: Juan Solanas
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, James Kidnie and Nicholas Rose,
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Both the best compliment and the biggest indictment I can give to Upside Down is that I have no idea how it even got made. Here is an enormously ambitious but unapologetically silly sci-fi/fantasy/romance/fairy tale from an almost entirely unknown director, who seems to have been given carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted, and who - according to IMDb, at least - was given $60 million to make it.

To its credit: 1) The $60 million figure may well be accurate, but intuitively it seems low. The movie looks like a hundred million bucks. 2) This also seems like an entirely un-focus-grouped movie. Which can only be a good thing. There's nothing worse than seeing a movie that's been focus-grouped into existence. 3) There are no major production companies listed among its credits, meaning somehow writer/director Juan Solanas got a bunch of independent financiers to give him millions and millions of dollars to make this movie. And you know what? More power to him. 4) The fact that Solanas got a bunch of independent financiers to give him millions and millions of dollars must mean they saw something special in his previous efforts, The Man Without a Head and Northeast, right? 5) Though I may not have particularly liked Upside Down, I'm now eager to see Solanas' aforementioned two efforts. 6) It takes brass balls to make your love story an homage not only to Romeo and Juliet, but to Adam and Eve as well. Brass ones. Even Stephenie Meyer would think that's a bit much.

But here we are, and here we have this movie I can't help but deeply admire while also thinking it's just about the most frivolous thing I've seen in a long time. So it goes with lofty (foolhardy?) ambitions. Behind all that spectacle and romantic indulgence rests a childlike sense of awe and wonder at the film's own conceits - something that would be endearing if it weren't so grating. We're introduced to the world of Upside Down through a voiceover by Jim Sturgess that makes him sound like a college freshman who just dropped acid for the first time.

Two worlds sit on top of one another, each with their own opposite and opposing gravity. For unexplained reasons (indeed, it's best not to ask too many questions about any of this), the two worlds are largely barred from contact with one another, except in the most impersonal and businesslike of circumstances "Up there" is a society of wealth and class, its skyscrapers reaching so far up (or down) that they nearly touch the borderline that separates it from "down below," a practical and literal underworld where peasants scrape by for scraps of metal to heat their homes, a destitute society entirely subjugated by its neighbors to the north.

The two lovers who threaten that balance are Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst), who meet as adolescents - having each trekked to the peak of their respective worlds' highest mountains - and develop a long courtship, separated only by the polarities of their respective gravities. He pulls her over to his side using rope, and the two fall in love over years of secret strolls and mountainside chats at dusk. (Why are people's actual bodies governed by the gravitational pulls of the world they come from? Like I said, don't ask questions.) Eventually they're caught, and despite Adam's best efforts she falls from his world back down to hers, leaving her - wait for it, wait for it . . . - with amnesia.

So basically, we have a Nicholas Sparks movie wrapped inside a cosmic fantasy.

To be fair to Solanas, he does try to play around with some ideas relating to his central conflicts and paradoxes - though he also ignores five ideas for every one he touches on. It's safe to say he's primarily concerned with what he can do with the scenario compositionally and through special effects, which as it turns out is quite a lot. It doesn't hurt that he brought along Alex McDowell to handle the production design. McDowell is one of my favorite in his discipline, having helped create the worlds of Minority Report, Fight Club, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Crow and The Terminal, among others. Here, he and Solanas create another marvel of design, from the rich, subdued colors of a ballroom café, to the darkly lit earth tones of a workshop in the lower world, to the bright, monochromatic shimmer of the TransWorld office building (the one place where the two worlds coexist), which seems like a futuristic update of the office layout in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (or, if you will, King Vidor's The Crowd).

But despite the work of McDowell and a fine supporting turn by Timothy Spall - not to mention cinematographer Pierre Gill, who gets more mileage out of the topsy-turvy visual layout than you might imagine*, and offers a great final touch in the final shot, on the far right of the frame - Upside Down can't find much traction otherwise. Narratively, it seems too sure of where it wants to end up, so there isn't much to the journey itself. There certainly isn't much to the gravity-crossed lovers, who are warmly played by Sturgess and Dunst but drastically underwritten. Nothing can quite save the film from its own wide-eyes silliness.

*. . . though certain visual schemes start to look a bit too much like a New Age-y inspirational poster, bordering on tacky.

I would, though, like to draw special attention to Sturgess - in particular his career choices. This is merely the latest in a string of interesting projects he's taken on over the last five or six years. Here's an actor with major roles in Across the Universe, Cloud Atlas and now this - three movies with "grand folly" written all over them. (I happen to like Across the Universe quite a bit, but its reputation is what it is. And I liked Cloud Atlas as well.) Of the three, I think Upside Down is the closest thing to an actual folly, but I still can't help but admire it, even if that admiration is stifled by my occasional snickering, and not-so-occasional eye-rolling.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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