The premise is a little tricky, so let me see if I can be succinct. Upside Down takes place on a pair of distant planets inhabited by human-like people who refer to themselves as humans, and look like humans. The two unnamed planets in question exist in what is called a binary gravity field (or some such thing), which means they orbit their sun as a pair, but remain constantly at the same distance from one another. That distance is only about 500 feet. This makes for a pair of cities, one on either planet, both at the one point where the planets are nearest, that seem to exist on the distant ceiling of the other. One planet is referred to as “up top” and the other is referred to as “down below.” The people Down Below see Up Top above them instead of a sky, and vice versa. Never mind that there is no “up” in space and both planets would appear to be “down below” to its own inhabitants. Another odd wrinkle: the people (and objects) from each planet are beholden to their own hometown gravity. So when someone from Down Below travels to Up Top, they require special weights to keep them on the ceiling, which is their counterparts' floor.
Also, the two central cities are connected by a bloody great building which stretches from one world to the next. Floor zero is the exact central point between the two planets, and people can meet there, one on the floor and one on the ceiling. There is something of a class struggle going on between the Up Toppers and the Down Belowers, as you might predict.
Also, if you steal some backward gravity from the other planet, it eventually bursts into flame for some reason. Also, there is a rare species of pink bumblebee on the Down Below planet that produces pink pollen which contains special anti-gravity powers.
Following me so far? Don't worry if you're not. Watch the recent Academy Award-nominated short film Head Over Heels for the effect on a smaller scale.
Argentinian surrealist photographer Juan Solanas' debut feature is so innovative and has such creative special effects that it really doesn't matter that the story of Upside Down is sappy and predictable. The central romance (and Upside Down is centrally a love story) between the Down Below boy Adam (Jim Sturgess) and the pretty blonde Up Topper gal Eden (Kirsten Dunst) is weepy sentimental claptrap for lovelorn 14-year-olds. Can these two unite through his mechanical machinations (he hides weights in his clothing) and her amnesia (yes, she has amnesia)? All of the forces driving the drama are cheap, and the screenplay is loaded with the kind of heart-wrenching hokum and artificially induced longing that infects the shallowest productions of Romeo & Juliet. Neither Adam nor Eden (Adam and Eden? For seriously?) really register as complete characters, and their romance is only felt with grand swoops of the film's over-dramatic score. The character who comes across the best is Adam's Up Top co-worker played by Timothy Spall, but Spall is a powerful enough character actor that he can bring interest and energy to any role he plays.
But I forgive the forgettable romance elements and the overall-cheesy story, as Upside Down is just so awesome to behold. Werner Herzog once famously said that film is constantly starving for new images, and Solanas desperately seems to be trying to introduce something new to the world. I feel he has succeeded. Upside Down, in terms of its visuals, is gorgeous and clever and creative. The audience is constantly disoriented by the inverted worlds constantly interacting, and you have to think about the physics of the established rules. Sure, actual gravity science is only paid lip service, but as far as I could tell, the film played by its own rules. This not only makes for some gorgeous digital inverted landscapes and floor-to-ceiling conversations, but also cute little moments like someone accidentally peeing on the ceiling, or their necktie flipping up in their face.
The special effects are not as state-of-the-art as some of the more recent Hollywood blockbusters (Upside Down was made for a relatively small $60 million; the visually-similar Inception was made for $160 million), making for some special effects shots that are infused with that tacky and obnoxious digital haziness that many filmmakers use to cover their lack of visual refinement (call it the Zack Snyder effect). For Upside Down, though, the haziness worked for once, giving it an actual aesthetic rather than a dull collection of usual digital images. What's more, the visuals are made creatively; I enjoyed what I saw throughout. With the exception of an out-of-the-blue bonkers video-game like platform-jumping action sequence near the film's end (seriously, it looks like something Konami would have thought up), all the visuals were fun to look at.
Actual physics? Bah. Love story? Meh. A film that actually strikes as creative? Hooray.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.