Two different worlds, they live in two different worlds. Twin planets — the posh Up Top and the gritty Down Below, connected by a TransWorld tower — face each other in such intimate proximity that the mountaintops on their respective surfaces nearly touch. That’s where Up Top’s Eden Moore (Kirsten Dunst) and Down Below’s Adam Kirk (Jim Sturgess) met as children and forged a kinship, before the police intervened and wounded them both. Each planet has its own gravity, which separates Adam and Eden as much as the rigid class structure. A decade later, the still-smitten Alex wonders, “But what if love was stronger than gravity?”
Another question, for the reader: Still with us? We hope so, since Juan Solanas’ science-fiction romance Upside Down boasts a beguiling mirror-world premise. The gravitational and political laws of the two planets, which Adam explains in the movie’s first few minutes, are augmented with nifty charts like the coolest episode of Nova. The opening credit line — “Upside Down Films and Les Films Upside Down Inc. Present…” — piquantly suggests that the movie is a co-production of the twin planets. If only the rest of the picture sustained that impish ingenuity, instead of settling for the generic love story of a girl from the upper 1% and a guy from the lower 47%.
(READ: TIME’s reviews of Melancholia and Another Earth)
Upside Down is the latest entry in an art-house mini-genre of movies that imagine the social consequences of a celestial anomaly: Earth encroached by another planet. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (starring Dunst) and James Cahill’s Another Earth, both from 2011, hatched a doomsday scenario of a rogue planet spun off its orbit and into ours. How would people react when faced with the inevitable end of our world? Solanas’ film is a kind of interplanetary sequel: the two worlds have met, not collided, and they get along fine, in a way — except that the people of one planet segregate and effectively enslave the people of the other.
In that sense, Upside Down is a variation on two futurist fantasies written and directed by Andrew Niccol: the 1997 Gattaca, in which a genetically modified race lords it over the unimproved humans; and the 2011 In Time, where the Haves have cornered the lifespan market and everyone else dies at the age of 25. Like the Niccol films, Upside Down takes the sociologist’s notion of two economic class systems in Europe, the Americas and India — the affluent North and the impoverished South — and extends it into science fiction. Up Top, or what we are shown of it, radiates power and glamour; blond Eden always seems back-lighted by the halo of luxury. Down Below has the grimy, retro look of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but more Dickensian. The steel-gray cast-iron architecture and the drab work clothes Adam wears suggest a planet too poor to afford color.
Solanas, born in Buenos Aires but raised in Paris, is the son of Argentine director Fernando E. Solanas; and the titles of three of his father’s features — The South, The Journey and Clouds — could be the first line of a haiku description of Upside Down’s plot. Adam must make the journey from Down Below through the clouds to infiltrate Up Top and reconnect with his childhood soulmate. Having created an anti-aging cream derived from the honey of pink bees, he has landed a job in the TransWorld tower, one of the few spaces shared by citizens of the two worlds. In a mirror-image, open-office plan the size of several football fields, the Uppers in their smart dark business suits work directly above (and upside down from) the Lowers in their blue lab coats. Adam’s only potential ally on the other side is the oddly rumpled Bob Boruchowitz (Timothy Spall), who may soon lose his job on grounds of, we’re guessing, insufficient spiffiness.
Adam’s plan is to sneak a few floors higher Up Top to find Eden. Since her Up is his Down, he must don counterweight boots and strap an anti-gravity belt inside his shirt. The longer he wears the counterweights, the more likely he is to heat up and eventually catch fire; but he’ll endure any pain to spend a few moments with his dream girl. Adam could be an other-world cousin to the masochistic magician played by Jim Carrey in the new comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone — one hurts himself for love, the other for his art — but lots less fun. The only time Upside Down cracks a wide smile is when Adam dashes into an Up Top men’s room, stands at a urinal… and pees on the ceiling.
Viewers are encouraged to smile in appreciation at the gravity gags in a nightclub-ballroom — it could be the auditorium of an old movie palace — where the Down Belowers dance on the floor and the Up Toppers dance literally on the ceiling, and where Eden cautiously sips a grasshopper from an inverted cocktail glass. (Plaudits to production designer Alex McDowell, whose credits include such sci-fi visions as Minority Report, Watchmen and In Time.) There’s also a wonderful moment when Adam, whose anti-gravity implements are again about to set him on fire, rushes out of the TransWorld tower, dives into a river and desperately removes the counterweights. No longer governed by Up There’s laws of gravity, he ascends out of the river, through the interplanetary sky and lands in a river Down Below — a splendid merging of story and visual effects.
A pity that the rest of Upside Down defies narrative logic more than gravity; that the core love story has no life or energy; that Durst has little to do but be adored; and that Sturgess, who hopscotched through the centuries as six different characters in last year’s Cloud Atlas, is unable here to locate the deranged passion in Adam’s quest, and settles for an annoying puppy-dog winsomeness. Absent any emotional grounding, the film is a gorgeous, sterile construction, like a dream city unoccupied by humans.
Adam’s adventures in the rivers of the two planets, not to mention in the men’s room, could have made this the ultimate fish-out-of-water movie. Instead, Upside Down reminds you that, when a fish is out of water too long, it dies.