If there's one thing we can take from Lars von Trier's Melancholia, it's that Kirsten Dunst is especially gorgeous when set against the backdrop of falling stars, or in the case of Upside Down, a parallel planet. Her beauty and sheer radiance nearly dwarfs the impeccable, wondrous visuals crafted by photographer-turned-director Juan Solanas. His keen cinematic eye brings to life a whimsical romance of Shakespearean proportions that is always pleasing to the eye, even if the heavily metaphorical story occasionally hits you over the head like a bludgeon.
Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Dunst) wish they were merely from opposite sides of the tracks, but in the case of their budding love, they are quite literally from two different worlds. Twin worlds, to be exact, defying all laws of physics by sharing the same gravity. Adam is from the burned out, downtrodden world known as Down Below, where he tinkers with an experiment that could change both worlds forever. Eden exists overhead in Up Above, a rich and technologically advanced civilization not so different from our own. Having met by sheer coincidence as children, they fell in love quickly, only to be separated when she is chased away by a violent mob. There's a lot of bitterness, anger, and jealousy between the two worlds, and fraternization with someone from another planet is strictly forbidden.
Solanas' unconventional tale of forbidden love lays on the allegory thick when it's never really called for. It's pretty obvious what he's trying to say about social and economic inequality, and the film bogs down when it's spelled out. He seems content to laboriously detail the numerous rules by which all life on these planets must exist, but at the same time is willing to cut corners in how those rules play out. Adam rediscovers Eden years later on television, and makes it his mission to reunite with her, society and gravity be damned. Using his invention, an anti-aging cream which utilizes anti-gravity molecules, he gets a job where she works, only to discover that she's amnesiac. In a fashion reminiscent of The Vow, he must make her fall in love with him all over again. But there are multitudes of problems that stand in the way. For one, he's not allowed to communicate with anyone from Up Above, even though he works in the massive Transworld building that traverses both worlds. Most importantly is that living matter from Down Below can't exist in Up Above's atmosphere for long without catching on fire. Rather than dealing with this crucial obstacle, Solanas instead plays it mostly for laughs, and then jettisons it altogether out of convenience.
Inception, but more fluid and alive. Equally impressive is Solanas' lack of Nolan's resources in generating these effects, which only become starker when taken indoors. A ballroom is the setting for arguably the most jaw-dropping moment, as dancers spin seemingly from every conceivable angle and luxurious fixtures glisten all around them. Even better are the quiet scenes between the two lovers, where they often interact emotionally and physically while upside down from one another. Floating in the calm embrace of their worlds' merged atmospheres, they share some truly surreal moments of passion. While Sturgess' earnest puppy dog routine can wear a bit old, he's ultimately effective as the lovelorn hero. Dunst is simply incredible, though, brightening up every scene and adding a real strength and vitality to her character. Their relationship is never less than compelling, enough that some of the script's creakiness can be overlooked. The always welcome Timothy Spall has perhaps the most complex character of all, a Transworld employee who sees how unjust things really are, but does nothing until it finally affects him. He adds a lighthearted touch to the story, but also a glimpse at the potential darkness if Solanas had chosen to go that route.
"Ambitious" is a word that gets thrown a lot, often undeservedly, but it's a fitting description for what Solanas has tried to achieve with Upside Down. While the narrative lacks nuance, Solanas at least attempts to present a story that is more than just your average romance. Visually resplendent with an almost celestial fabric weaving through it, Upside Down is a wholly original film with imagery that will be impossible to forget.
Trav's Tip: Be sure to tune in for my interview with Juan Solanas!