When it comes to high concept, they don’t get much higher than the premise behind Upside Down. The setting is pure fantasy – two worlds with opposite gravity, yet so close as to touch. In one ‘up above’, the populace is wealthy and live in splendour, while ‘down below’ all are poor and struggle in squalor. None can swap over, because you retain your own gravity, even when in the other world.
Into this somewhat heavy-handed social metaphor come the classic star-crossed lovers. As a child, Adam (Jim Sturgess) is hunting in the mountains of Down Below for pink bee pollen, a critical ingredient in his aunt’s legendary floating pancakes when he climbs so high he sees Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a girl from Up Above looking for her missing dog. The pair immediately fall in love and grow up together.
Naturally, their clandestine meetings are interrupted and an accident sees Eden plummet to her apparent death. Distraught, Adam goes on with his life, where his experiments with the bee pollen show potential anti-gravity applications until one day, on a TV show, he sees Eden, alive. She is now an employee of Transworld, a mega corporation whose central skyscraper runs between the two worlds, using resources of Down Below to fuel Up Above.
Adam begins a plan to work for Transworld and try and make contact with Eden, but he soon discovers her accident has left her with amnesia and no memory of him. At the same time, his anti-gravity experiments are attracting a lot of interest…
Director Juan Solanas made his name with his short film The Man Without a Head, which secured the Palm D’Or for Best Short Film at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. His 2005 feature debut, Northeast made little splash, but the visuals of his short and his commercial background are clearly evident in the big-budget world of Upside Down. But what would prove beyond the vision of Solanas would be the commercial success of his dream project (literally – the central image of the film, being two lovers atop mountains trying to touch came to him in a dream).
In development since 2008, the plan for Upside Down was it to be a rare “European Blockbuster”, a film that would be a hit Stateside as well as in Europe. The goal was to merge European sensibilities with American bombast for a globa win-win. After a 55-day shoot was completed in Montreal in June 2010, the lengthy post-production cycle began with the film’s massive visual FX requirements. Then, it seemed a vanish.
A trailer appeared on a French blog in January, 2012, but was taken down after a ‘cease and desist’ notice from Warner Bros France. Rumours of test screenings emerge with generally negative reception, but still no sign of a release for the film. Despite an advertised French release date of August 22 of that year, the first release would actually be in Russia and Eastern Europe, where it would bomb badly, making a mere $6 million.
Further rumours of distribution problems and re-editing abounded, even a 3D post-conversion job. By the time the re-coloured film saw US theatres, it was March 15, 2013. The release was on only 11 theatres in the US and Upside Down would finish up making $600,000 in the USA and $15 million worldwide.
After all the problems, it comes as little surprise that the film itself is as awkward as its release.
The visuals are, relentlessly, gorgeous. The colouring is a bit over-the-top in its complementary teal-and-orange scheme, but every shot is beautiful and the inventiveness of the dual gravity set-up allows for memorable imagery throughout. People drink upside-down drinks, characters soar through the air and, in one eye-catching sequence, Adam swims out into the Up There sea, drops his weights and shoots up into the sky, to land with a splash in the Down Below ocean.
The overall story is also solid. Heavy with metaphorical possibilities, underlined by a Brazil-esque dystopian world, the plot of two lovers separated by seemingly insurmountable obstacles is classic and appropriate for the fairytale quality of the setting.
The problem is the script itself. Issues resolve themselves in the most banal ways, often off-camera. Issues are raised and then ultimately prove spurious. There is a general lack of drama throughout. Events just kind of…happen. Similarly, the characters are flat. Adam and Eden love each other because we are told they do. Certainly, neither has any other discerning characteristics. The film sets up the rules to gravity (explained clumsily in voiceover), such as the fact that objects from opposite worlds burn after prolonged contact…but then breaches them repeatedly (for example, people drink liquids from the other world – surely a suicidal concept).
That is the most frustrating aspect of Upside Down. It is a gorgeous film, loaded with possibilities, but its script lacks the imagination of its conceit. A wonderful idea, bungled in its execution, much like the release of the film itself.
There is a decent Behind The Scenes featurette as the main extra on the DVD. This provides glimpses of some of the enormous technical issues with shooting the film, including the fact that many scenes had to be shot twice – once for the scene taking place on the floor and once for the one on the ceiling.
There are comments from both stars, plus main supporting actor Timothy Spall, along with the enthusiastic Solanas and his crew. The excitement from everyone involved is palpable, which becomes somewhat melancholy with knowledge of the film’s ultimate fate.
Also included on the disc are extended version of the interviews that appear in the featurette.
Available on DVD from Madman Entertainment.