By ignoring its own guidelines, Upside Down breaks a key rule of storytelling: when inventing a new world, make sure the laws governing it are coherent.
Upside Down begins with a story about planets. We're introduced to a binary system governed by three inescapable (if not entirely scientific) laws:
1. Though the worlds are close enough to interact with each other, all matter is affected only by the gravity of its home planet.
2. If you're in the mood to float, you can offset your weight by matter from the other world, called "inverse matter," which can act as an anchor, but...
3. Prolonged contact between matter and inverse matter causes the inverse matter to start burning.
These two worlds are so close that residents can jump or climb from one to the other. "In our world," Adam (Jim Sturgess) explains in an awestruck voiceover, "It's possible to fall up and rise down." It's possible, but not encouraged. The governing bodies on both worlds maintain a strict separation between the ruffians on the planet described as "down below" and the wealthy, fashionable residents "up top." (Labels aside, each world appears "on top" of the other, a point emphasized when someone cranes his neck upward to say, "Hello down there!") The only link between the two populations is TransWorld, a multi-planet corporation that takes the resources of the planet below and refines them for use above; the company is housed in a skyscraper so tall it bridges both worlds.
With this caste system in place, it's only a matter of time before a pair of planet-crossed lovers emerges. Adam and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) -- getting a Genesis vibe from those names? -- meet while climbing mountaintops as children and strike up a courtship as they get older, indulging in some zero-gravity kissing between worlds before they're separated. Ten years later, Adam learns that Eden is working at TransWorld and sets off to infiltrate the forbidden world up top to win his true love.
The two worlds of Upside Down give rise to many intriguing images; the movie is lovely to look at. Eden's drink of choice, for example, is a concoction made from liquids from the opposite world, served in an upside-down martini glass, liquid floating within, and the only way to imbibe it is by putting the inverted glass to your lips -- being careful not to let the opposite-gravity cocktail escape -- and tipping the edge down into your mouth.
Such detailed images convey the physical and social complexities of living with competing gravities. Grander set pieces are also conceptually intriguing: an upside-down restaurant features a majestic chandelier growing up from the center of a ballroom floor, long shots show anonymous workers whose rows of cubicles are stacked on top of one another, and mountaintops stretch so tall they almost reach the tips of opposite-world mountaintops. People enter into rooms on ground level, only to pop out through doorways on the ceiling.
The fundamental physics also grant the film multiple chances to play with visual and emotional perspectives. Though much of the story follows Adam's experiences, the frames don't always show his perspective. Sometimes Adam appears upside down on screen, sometimes not, and sometimes the perspective switches mid-conversation, keeping the audience as off balance as he feels, trying to sort out his relationship to the top world. In small doses, such imagery is playful, but sometimes it can be confusing.
It’s a shame, then, that such an inventive-looking movie couldn’t figure out how to tell its story visually. Working from his own script, director Juan Diego Solanas has a character explain each plot turn, from the mundane to the significant to the utterly ridiculous (and, unfortunately, there are a couple of those). It starts with Adam's voiceover, but repeatedly and disconcertingly, characters show up where they don't make sense to deliver an important bit of news ("Contact her again, and it will cost you your life!") and disappear again. And, even if it's fitting for a movie where everyone is pulled toward one of two separate poles, it's also vexing that all of the characters appear to be in permanently heightened states of emotion. They're passionately enthralled with one another or gutted by betrayal, ecstatic during a reunion or furious at their separation. Such overstatement is a shortcut -- what the script lacks in a nuanced or developed plot, it makes up in bursts of sensational intensity.
This attempt to bolster the plot's single idea with deeply felt emotion wouldn't be so awful if it was convincing. Upside Down, however, is frustratingly muddy. Take, for instance, those three rules asserted in the opening scene. The third -- and most important -- is that matter that comes in contact with inverse matter from the opposite world starts to burn after prolonged exposure. One would assume that primary-world Adam's prolonged contact with inverse-world Eden would become something of a problem, but they never seem to ignite anything in each other besides youthful passion. This heating problem only seems to affect metal. It's never clear if this inconsistency is intentional, if the words "matter" and "metal" are used (incorrectly) synonymously, if only specific types of matter are affected or if there's something else at work, shielding Adam and Eden from burning up. It's hard to believe that a movie that put so much thought into the mechanics of drinking an upside-down martini would lose sight of the basic parameters of existence.
That said, with all of the jumping between worlds and flip-flopping of perspectives, it's easy to lose track of where the characters are in physical space. A chase scene towards the end of the film becomes nearly unintelligible because it's unclear in which world the characters started and which direction you're hoping they head in order to reach safety. They're jumping through the air between worlds, but, if they fall, which direction is falling?
By ignoring its own guidelines, Upside Down breaks a rule that's even more important than the prohibition on combining matter and inverse matter: when inventing a new world, make sure the laws governing it are coherent. Trying to sync up the background information about life on these planets with what appears on screen becomes a distraction that plagues the viewing experience. It doesn't matter what the film has to say about wealth inequality when all the audience is thinking is, "Wait, shouldn't something be on fire by now?"
My first exposure to Upside Down was at a movie theater with technical problems, such that the sound was out during a presentation of the film's trailer. It strikes me that this may the best way to enjoy the movie: tune out the plot and explanations, and just let the pretty images wash over you.