From the closing night of the festival, our thoughts on Upside Down
The last film of the Sci-Fi-London Festival, Upside Down, was a very good note to end on (it was also the film’s UK premiere). It’s a fairly traditional love story given an intriguing sci-fi twist, and while the story and characters are nowhere near as memorable as the remarkable visuals, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. It was preceded by a five-minute animated short called The March, the winner of this year’s Sci-Fi-London 48 hour film competition, which challenges competitors to make a science fiction film in two days. The films have to be based around an idea from New Scientist magazine, in this case that human reactions to robots will become gradually more positive and empathic. To make a film, an animation in particular, of such high quality in such a short time frame is quite remarkable.
But on to the main event. Upside Down is a French-Canadian production directed by Juan Diego Solanas, and as far as high-concept science fiction goes it’s certainly a fascinating one. The whole film is based on the idea of ‘double gravity,’ which sees two planets orbiting next to each other, and their gravities opposing. Each planet’s gravity only affects objects and people from that planet, making it possible to fall up from one world onto the other: things from one world brought to the other will float away if not tethered. And of course, main characters Adam and Eden, played by Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst, fall in love despite each being from a different planet.
It takes a little while to get your head around double gravity, even with the expository opening with Adam explaining how it works to the audience, and it’s not without its problems and logic holes. Shouldn’t two opposing gravities, at the very least, cause catastrophic earthquakes and tsunami, if not pulling the planets apart altogether? They sort of get around this with the fact that each world’s gravity has no effect on things not from that world, but it still doesn’t make much sense.
The visual inventiveness on display here is extraordinary, and director Juan Diego Solanas never seems to run out of ideas
Still, try not to worry about the logic and just enjoy the visuals, because Upside Down is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Where the sky should be is instead a teeming, upside-down cityscape, the office where Adam works has people from the other world walking on the ceiling, and there are even inverted cocktails, floating drinks kept from escaping by upside-down glasses. The visual inventiveness on display here is extraordinary, and Solanas never seems to run out of ideas for how to play with the opposing gravities.
One particularly beautiful scene sees Adam and Eden just floating in the air and enjoying a zero-gravity reunion, their weights cancelling each other out. In the final action sequence they use this ability to float to leap huge distances in an attempt to escape their pursuers, and Adam at one point falls up from the other world to his own to avoid being captured. The creativity and cleverness of the concept, and the resulting set-pieces, are worth the price of admission alone.
Contact between the Upper World and the Lower World is forbidden in Upside Down. The Upper has grown rich and prosperous on oil from the Lower, where the people live in poverty and squalor. The point the filmmakers are trying to make is a good one, but it makes Elysium’s allegories for the Occupy movement, wealth disparity and immigration look subtle by comparison. Still, in an age where even Star Trek has become a brainless action franchise, any science fiction which tries to address real-world issues deserves to be applauded.
Its politics may not be subtle, but it feels like a proper sci-fi film in an age where the genre is all spectacle and no substance
The politics at no point overpower the story, which is a relief. The characters are thinly sketched, but the performances are excellent, particularly from Sturgess and Dunst. The story itself is, as above, a classical/predictable (delete according to your perspective) star-crossed love story – while it doesn’t do anything new, it’s still effective and affecting, and the actors really make it work. It occasionally feels like the story is there to provide an excuse for all the visual trickery, but if that was the case then it’s hard to complain too much.
Upside Down is a film cut from the same cloth as something like House of Flying Daggers. The plot isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s so ridiculously pretty to look at that it just doesn’t matter. The high concept is a fascinating one, the effects are gorgeous, and it feels like a proper science fiction film in an age where the genre is all spectacle and no substance. Its politics may not be subtle, but at least they’re there, which counts for a lot given the current state of the genre. It’s a lush, sumptuous film, and a great end to a great festival.
More Sci-Fi-London coverage: Dragonphoenix Chronicles: Indomitable reviewed
All images: Warner Bros