Title: Upside Down
Director: Juan Solanas
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, Nicholas Rose, James Kidnie, Vlasta Vrana
What begins as a grand concept full of unusual possibilities — twinned, touching planets with opposing gravitational fields — quickly succumbs to a frustrating mixture of pretentiousness and torpor in “Upside Down,” Argentinean-born writer-director Juan Solanas’ dystopian romance, starring Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess. A gussied-up, threadbare fairytale narrative that unfolds in perpetual pursuit of memorable images over narrative sensibility, this misfire illustrates the axiom that even if not all good ideas are original, all original ideas are certainly not good.
Unfolding against a backdrop of inter-world tension, the basic split on display in “Upside Down” tracks loosely along the same line as the recent “Total Recall” remake, except with contrasting gravities — the planet “up there” is a wealthy, business-oriented and exploitative one, while the one below it exists in poverty-stricken servitude. Despite this, Adam Kirk (Jim Sturgess) and Eden Moore (Kirsten Dunst) strike up an adolescent friendship when they meet at the mountain peaks that almost touch. As teens, it bends toward romance when Adam pulls her down into his world with a rope (visiting the other planet doesn’t release a person from the gravitational pull of their native planet). They canoodle, but when interplanetary border patrol agents attack them, Eden tumbles back into her world.
Flash forward a decade. Adam believes Eden to be dead, but it turns out that she was merely concussed, and has amnesia. In his desperate attempts to gain some face time with Eden, Adam gets a job at TransWorld working on an innovative face-lift cream based on a secret, gravity-neutralizing ingredient that’s been passed down for generations in his family (That secret ingredient — the pollen of pink bees. Yes, seriously.) So begins Adam’s quest — with the assistance of disaffected co-worker Bob Boruchowicz (Timothy Spall) — to both devise a weighted suit to mask his innate gravitational pull and woo Eden all over again, all while maintaining a separate identity.
It all sounds outrageous, I realize, and it is, on a certain level. Yet for the uniqueness of its conceit, there’s a simplicity to the actual story at the movie’s core. The setting may be distinctive, but the narrative is anything but fanciful or unmoored. (Various benchmarks also include “Another Earth,” “The Vow,” “Cloud Atlas,” “The Adjustment Bureau” as well as pretty much the entire filmography of Andrew Niccol.) Solanas is clearly aiming for a sort of less-is-more lyricism. The problem is that “Upside Down” is loaded down by misstep after misstep.
First, and most crucially, is a lack of honest investment in the putative civil unrest between the worlds. Solanas’ simple little love story has a certain ceiling of intrigue, but what initially comes across as just piddling eventually comes to feel overwhelmingly insipid when the plot begins to revolve around Adam’s universe-revolutionizing formula. “Upside Down” then asks viewers to believe things beyond the pale — that an almighty and evil corporation like TransWorld can’t conduct a simple chemical analysis, or that they’d eventually be foiled by… having someone beat them to file a patent application. (Again: yes, seriously.) Later, Solanas shoehorns in a ridiculous stepping-stone-type chase and shoot-out (you know, for “thrills”) that feels grafted on per some weird studio note.
I could go on (and on — don’t get me started on its thunderously stupid ending), but even the idea of further dissection wearies me, honestly. Terrible isn’t the right word to use to describe “Upside Down,” which suffers from a myopia that comes only with the indulgence of a Big Idea; it is a real, top-shelf mess, however. Dunst and Sturgess are fine, and have an OK chemistry together, but the film suffers from having so few supporting characters of note. While Spall brings a wry personality to Bob, he can’t breathe a convincing multi-dimensionality into his character. And, lacking characters, Solanas’ movie is just this strange, enervated mash-up of poorly sketched ideas tossed across an expensive canvas — a tone poem of wobbly, inconsistent pitch.
Written by: Brent Simon