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Upside Down: Substance All in the Visuals

By Riley Webster · March 18, 2013

One's enjoyment of Juan Solanas' Upside Down depends completely on the tolerance level for audacious silliness. Most viewers don't have a high level of that, which is not a criticism, merely an observation. And certainly the reviews for Upside Down have been middling to terrible (one major critic literally gave it negative 5 stars and said it was one of the worst films he'd ever seen). But much like those other recent science-fiction films with outrageous levels of silliness, Cloud Atlas and The FountainUpside Down, to me, is a visual masterpiece, and a wonderful movie to behold.

It's almost a disservice to Solanas' film by calling it science fiction, because that description only applies in the most basic visual sense. Yes, the film is set in an alternate reality of Earth, where two levels of the planet live on top of each other, where the rich live on the "upside" and the poor on the "downside." And yes, there are chase scenes, sci-fi inventions and technology, and absolutely stunning CGI. But that's where the term "science fiction" stops dead, mostly because the movie has absolutely no science in its pretty little head. This is a fantasy romance of surprisingly earnest and old-fashioned bluntness. It's ridiculous. And it's adorable.

Upside Down tells the story of a young couple who meet at the top of two mountains; the girl from up top, the boy from below. The movie instantly skimps past their courtship as children, and immediately they become Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst; indeed, the screenplay deciding to barely touch upon seemingly important details is a common problem. But no matter, the two are in love. After a tragic accident, Sturgess long thinks his lady has died—until he sees her on TV and decides he must cross over to the other world and be with her.

In terms of plot complexity, Upside Down is…well, let’s just say I was often reminded of Cameron's Avatar while watching it. The script is darn near putrid in its infantile simplicity, but the look and feel of the film are so overwhelming and beautiful that I completely forgave its transgressions.

The story is simply Romeo and Juliet with a futuristic gimmick. Many sub-plots and characters are dropped at a whim, and several major story elements are given absolutely no connecting threads at all. Coincidence is also a major problem with the film—Dunst’s character received amnesia after the accident, for instance, which causes a major conflict in the film, but about 20 minutes later she suddenly remembers everything with not even the slightest explanation of how or why. It was almost as if Solanas thought amnesia would be a great obstacle, but then thought "naaah, this is taking too long." And, let it also be said that just about any movie that features amnesia and doesn't star Matt Damon is destined to be hilarious in a bad way.

But but but…the visuals! The aesthetic beauty of the flick is absolutely marvelous, and completely re-defines "style over substance." In Upside Down, the style IS the substance, 100%. Seeing the two worlds flipped on top of each other, the labyrinthine offices with no ceilings, the gorgeous mountains and shocking camera angles during a particularly exciting chase….I mean, these are scenes that you can pull out and just look at for hours and hours, like an exceptionally haunting painting. In fact, I used clips from this movie recently to teach a seventh grade class on movie cinematography, and the use of color in lighting, and they too were moved. Upside Down looks and feels so revolutionary that I completely forgive it its script—but with that being said, just imagine what a classic, tour de force masterpiece this thing could have been if the script hadn’t eaten it. Thinking about that makes me a little said, despite the beauty.

I feel like this film is somewhat of an underdog. So many movies these days are dark, depressing, and full of bleak violence. And here we have a simple, old-fashioned PG story where two people risk it all for love. The audacious visuals were favored in place of audacious story-craft, but perhaps that is the point. Instead of working to dodge the bullets of the modern audiences jaded tendencies to second guess and unravel every motive, this film asks that audiences let go, despite the unbelievable—even when it’s unbelievably unbelievable. And that, perhaps more than any other reason, is why I loved the film so much. When I sat there watching it with my newly engaged lovely, seeing her eyes light up during a no gravity kiss, or feeling her hand squeezing mine as the lovers leaped across huge chasms to escape the police, or watching her gasp whenever the sun rose on the two worlds…I have to be completely honest and admit that the movie had me. I was hooked. And I can't wait to watch Upside Down again.