Get Out the Hot Milk and Honey:
You will be hard pressed to find a more visually sumptuous or lushly gorgeous film this year than Upside Down. The difficulty is that you’ll also be pushed to find one that’s dafter or more frustrating. Writer/director Juan Diego Solanas gives us a setting that is an absolute delight for the eyes. With his brilliant production designer Alex McDowell, so good with Watchmen, what we see here is like one of those delicate and exquisite constructions made from spun sugar. But it is likewise a bit too sweet to be wholesome and just as empty of calories.
Perhaps part of the problem is that I sat down with the misconception that I was about to see a science-fiction film; and not having seen one in a while I was just in the mood. Now maybe some people think this is science fiction but it’s not as I understand the term. I’m not really sure what it is. Science fantasy maybe? Or maybe it’s unfair to even try to label it. Maybe it just is what it is, at the risk of going all Zen on you.
The concept is that somewhere in time and space there has taken place an anomaly that allows to exist two planets—twinned planets—with gravities that pull in opposite directions so that the inhabitants of one can never visit the other except through the use of a material that is sparingly used by the Upsiders (I think I just made that term up. I can’t recall if it’s in the movie or not but it’s as good a term as any.)
Now I’m not talking here about two celestial bodies that hang in the heavens tens of thousands of miles apart. These really are twins, so close that at some points their mountain areas almost touch. This leads to some extraordinary images and it is in one such area that the two main characters—Eden (Kirsten Dunst) and Adam (Jim Sturgess)– meet and begin a tentative love affair. It is a love that is forbidden due to the strictly enforced class differences between the planets, the upper one being the very privileged whilst those on the lower planet eke out a basic existence.
Chased by a kind of transworld border patrol the two find themselves separated until years later when Adam devises a way to visit the upper world on a temporary basis. Sadly, by this stage Eden has had selective amnesia for years and can’t remember the hapless guy at all. If you’re beginning to develop a headache by this stage, don’t worry: it’s that kind of film. Wait till you get a load of the pollen from the pink bees! They never taught you this stuff in physics class. Not unless it was a physics class taught by Carlos Castaneda.
Whether by design or accident this is a film that brings to mind a lot of other works. For the industrialised poverty of the lower planet Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is the obvious one that springs to mind, whilst the overall feel of drudgery suffered by the workers compared to the ruling elite will recall Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis.
What I found myself thinking of most however was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series of books set in the inner world of Pellucidar, a world located right at the earth’s core. Here the horizon curves upwards and occasionally the denizens of Pellucidar can glimpse mountains, forests, even seas hanging far in the distance above their heads, seemingly suspended there. It has its own miniature sun, the explanation for which escapes me at the moment, and a small moon known as the Pendant World. And on this moon can also be seen rivers, valleys and so on. These are spectacular images that are brought to life by ERB’s vivid writing and in Upside Down a lot of those visions are realised. The Downsiders can only look up in awe at the cities hanging above their heads—what they consider to be a Paradise.
Which leads into the rather obvious symbolism: I mean, the names Adam and Eden definitely make you moan “Jeezus Pleezus” although they’re forgivable in the context of the story; but the “Upstairs Downstairs” presentation of their society and the use of the Border Guards is heavy handed to put it mildly. Still, this is a film about the imagery: the building which is so high that one of the floors has workers at their desks on the ‘ground’ whilst they can converse with those on their desks on the ‘ceiling’. Or the stunning ballroom dance where the same effect takes place. Then there is Adam falling upwards from the sea back to his own planet. Astonishing. It’s just a pity that onto this sunburst of imagination Solanas has hammered in a banal love story that, stripped of the visuals, isn’t all that interesting.
Sure, Dunst and Sturgess are likable enough but they would hardly set the world on fire. At least the great Timothy Spall is there to save the day as Jim, an Upworlder who befriends Adam. And one gigantic red thumb of a mistake is that introduction that is read in this wishy-washy put-you-into-a-coma voice by Sturgess at his most boring. As the credits roll you get battered over the head with all this information that is supposed to explain to you how this world(s) works. We don’t need to believe that it’s physically possible because it’s fine as a fantasy. And I keep coming back to those images: you’ll want to cut some of them out of the screen, frame them and hang them on your wall.
It’s a funny thing but I set out to mention what is wrong with this film. Now I have this weird urge to see the damned thing again. Maybe the best idea is to see it on the big screen first; then get a decent DVD version and turn the over-intrusive soundtrack down. Lie back on the couch with a mug of hot milk and honey, with some cheese chunks on the side. If you have never tried this as a way of enhancing your dreams then you don’t know what you’ve missed. Then simply drink in those images and get a good night’s sleep.
Or if that’s your thing open a bottle of wine, smoke a joint and listen to a tape of whale noises. You’ll love it.
This column encourages you to drink hot milk and honey with cheese responsibly.