Amazing Concept, Disappointing Film: ‘Upside Down’ Could Have Been Great

I don’t normally write movie reviews… in fact, I don’t even really write book reviews, I just occasionally mention or rate books I like. But this week I had to make an exception, because I recently watched a film on Netflix that irked me, not because it was terrible (though I did find many aspects of it to be terrible) but because it could have been so good. It could have made it onto my favourite sci-fi films of all time list.

Upside Down is a science fiction romance starring Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess. It was released in 2012, so it’s a bit late to be reviewing it, but I only recently stumbled across it while browsing Netflix. The genre looked right up my alley and the concept was intriguing. I saw the 2-star (out of 5-star) average rating… but I thought hey, everything else looks tempting, maybe I’ll enjoy it anyway.

The Good

This film had such an intriguing, ambitious concept. Here my hasty summary of it in a paragraph (if you want a more detailed plot summary, see the Wikipedia page):

Two worlds lie directly opposite one another, with opposing gravities. On the highest mountains these two worlds nearly touch. Objects and people from one world always retain their same original gravity, even if they venture to the other world, but venturing into the opposite world is forbidden. Nonetheless, two people from these different worlds fall in love, and try to figure out a way to be together despite their differing gravities and societies.

Yes it’s a totally implausible concept, but I think of it as science fantasy and am happy to accept the impossible premise if they follow through logically with it – and for the most part, they do.

The idea is a very a challenging one to portray visually and could be totally confusing, but the film really pulls it off. It explores the concept in a multitude of fascinating ways, with some gorgeous, stunning visuals and mind-bending scenes that really make you think about the effects of gravity.

There is even a massive ‘TransWorld’ skyscraper that connects the two worlds, where employees work on cross-world products (but aren’t allowed to venture into the opposing floors of the building). Employees on the middle floor where the two worlds meet are literally looking ‘up’ at one another from the floor and ceilings. Very cool.

In fact, the whole film just looks beautiful, with many impressive, fascinating shots.

As for the romance, it’s rare characters have such truly staggering obstacles to overcome to be together. The lengths the main character goes to to be with his soul mate are remarkable, and you really want him to succeed.

The Bad

The problem is… the actual love story, when you strip away all the cool gravity stuff, is a bit simplistic, cliché and sappy.

The dialogue is often pretty poor, and the script has some highly convenient plot points that feel cliché and predictable, as well as others that are odd and just don’t seem necessary.

The acting also often felt weak and melodramatic (particularly if the characters are screaming “no!!!!!”), though given that many of the actors have done a brilliant job in other films I have to wonder if the directing or the writing is largely at fault.

Some of the editing also makes things awkward. For example, the film often holds on a shot of a character’s smiling face for too long, or adds an over-the-top white glow effect to a cliché ‘lovers gazing at each other’ shot so that it just looks silly.

The film also has some completely illogical moments that weaken my willingness to believe in the premise. For example, objects that come in contact with ‘antimatter’ –matter with the opposite gravity – supposedly burn up after a while, and yet somehow this doesn’t apply to humans, only to the clothes they wear and objects they use. Thus it just seems like a convenient but silly way to add time pressure (the protagonist has to run back to his own world before his clothes burn off).

Early-on there’s an odd unnecessary shot of the boy looking up from ground level and seeing the girl on the other world, then shouting out to her. We know from the scale of the previous shot that it is totally impossible he would see her from that distance, and even more impossible that she would hear him.

In spite of all this, there were a few really well-done scenes where I felt moved by the characters and their plights… but most of the time, I found it hard to connect with them.

All in All

I finished the film feeling torn. It’s not often that people attempt sci-fi romance in film, particularly with such a unique concept, so I’d been ready to love this… and while I’m glad I watched it, I can’t say I truly enjoyed it.

I was so impressed by the amazing concept and visuals, the scope of which can’t easily be communicated verbally (you have to watch the film to understand), so I wanted to tell other people to see it… but I was so put off by the weak elements and storytelling failures that I couldn’t in good faith recommend it to someone as ‘great’ or ‘enjoyable’.

The worst part is, if the script had been reworked into a decent, compelling love story and the other weirdnesses had been fixed, I really think this film could have been the sci-fi or romance hit of the year (back in 2012). It could have been truly brilliant. Instead, it seems to have gotten limited release and some lacklustre ratings (though I think it screened at several film festivals) and I only learned of its existence because of Netflix.

So should you go see Upside Down? If you’re like me and you love a good science fiction concept and visual feast, give it go. But if you don’t, or if you can’t tolerate cheesy, poorly told love stories, maybe steer clear.

But that’s just my opinion – has anyone else seen this film? If so, what did you think?

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3 thoughts on “Amazing Concept, Disappointing Film: ‘Upside Down’ Could Have Been Great

  1. Ah yes I remember seeing the trailer for this years ago, but didn’t bother cos the reviews were not positive. It is a really really cool concept! I’m the same as you- I’m happy to suspend my disbelief. Plus it looks beautiful from the trailer. Such a shame that the romance is sappy and the script is bad. Such a shame!!

    Liked by 1 person

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