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Blame it on the Bard: ever since Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” first inflamed the sensibilities and emotions of its frilled sleeve and pantaloons-sporting audiences, it’s been pretty much the gold-standard of ill-fated pop culture romances. The tale of star-crossed lovers, doomed to be in thrall to each other, yet forbidden to be together thanks to a bitter cross-family feud, has formed the basis for an almost uncountable number of films, books, plays, TV shows, comic books, cartoons and stick-figure flip books. Every writer, filmmaker, content producer and artist brings their own spin to the story: the tale has transcended eras, notions of class, gender, race, sexuality, nationality and religious upbringing. Each and every generation finds something new with the story because, let’s face it: there have been star-crossed lovers since humanity emerged from the primordial ooze and there’ll be star-crossed lovers until our sun finally blinks out of existence.

Argentinian writer-director Juan Solanas’ Upside Down (2012), despite its fanciful sci-fi trappings, is yet another in a long line of films that look to Shakespeare’s iconic play for inspiration. In this case, the intent appears to be to dress up the age-old story of ill-fated lovers with the giddy fantasy elements of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the grimy, dystopic worldview of Terry Gilliam. Rather than coming up with a fresh, new spin on the old chestnut, however, Solanas’ film ends up being trite, unapologetically dewy-eyed and overly sentimental: it’s basically a happy, multiplex take on Gilliam’s far superior Brazil (1985). As the old saying goes, if that’s what you’re looking for, look no further.

A star-struck, expository voice-over fills us in on the basics of the world from the jump. Essentially, Upside Down is focused on two planets, each with their own individual gravities, societies, social systems and matter (both “regular” and “inverse”). The planets are so close to each other that the metropolitan lights of the “top” world serve as the “stars” of the bottom world: a stark, industrial tower connects both worlds, allowing the privileged “top worlders” to co-exist (in a manner of speaking) with the lowly “bottom worlders.” That’s right, folks: the people in the gleaming, modern “top world” are the haves and the folks dwelling in the run-down, dystopic “bottom world” are the have-nots, condemned to suck up all the waste, pollution and detritus of their well-to-do “Northern” neighbors.

Our surrogate Romeo and Juliet, in this case, are Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst). She’s a privileged “up worlder,” he’s a lowly “down worlder” and they first meet as children, at a point where the two worlds almost touch. This begins a decades-long romance that is harshly curtailed when an “up world” hunting party takes a shot at Adam (“up worlders” and “down worlders” are forbidden to have social contact, you see) and ends up causing Eden to fall and lose her memory. He thinks she’s dead, she can’t remember anything before the accident and they each go about their separate lives.

An inventor, by trade, Adam comes up with a miraculous face-lifting cream that gains him access to the vaunted Trans World tower and the much-envied lives of the “up worlders.” While there, he makes a friend and ally in “up worlder” Bob (Timothy Spall), along with the more shocking discovery that Eden is still alive and well. Fighting against the restrictions and conventions of their individual societies, as well as their individual bodies (“up worlders” and “down worlders” are bound by the conventions of their respective gravities, even when “visiting” the opposing world…this, of course, makes the title a physical reality, while making personal interaction more than a little difficult), Adam struggles to make Eden remember the love they once shared, all while trying to carve out his own slice of the “up world” pie. As Trans World executives pursue the pair, however, they’ll come to realize that every great love involves sacrifice: sometimes, you have to lose everything you have in order to gain the things you really want.

From the get-go, Upside Down makes its intentions quite clear: this is a sappy, traditional, “boy meets/loses/gets back girl” story and any focus on other aspects of the narrative are, for lack of a better term, simply smoke and mirrors. Unlike Gilliam’s films, which take sharp, cynical jabs at the futility of modern life, or Jeunet’s films, which often point out the inherent absurdity of human interactions, Solanas’ Upside Down is really all about the trials and travails of this particular couple. Sure, there are pretensions to more, especially once we get to the giddy finale that seems to indicate that Adam and Eden’s love will, miraculously, transform their uncaring world(s) (as the ridiculously serious voice over tells us, “that’s a story for another time”…oy…).

As a traditional romance, Upside Down hits all of the required beats but never really catches fire: Sturgess and Dunst have decent enough chemistry, for the most part, but there’s never anything especially passionate about them. They seem like the kind of couple that have a good time in high school and then break up the summer before moving away to college: pretty far afield from lovers who would “die” without their partner. There are some clever attempts to make the notion of risking yourself for the one you love a more physical reality (Adam’s special rig, which is the only way he’s able to move around in “up world,” has a tendency to burst into flame when he overstays his welcome, meaning that he really is “burning” for Eden) but, for the most part, this is another example of “tell, don’t show.” The one good counter-example to this is also one of the film’s silliest scenes, as the two lovers hold each other and kiss as they gently spin in mid-air, caught between both of their opposing gravities. It’s the kind of silly, swooning moment that makes Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) seem like Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972).

Many of the film’s critical issues can actually be linked back to its frequently silly, nonsensical plot developments. The central idea concerning the opposing worlds is actually pretty great and would have made a really interesting, serious sci-fi film, ala Gattaca (1997), or even something inherently “artier” like von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Here, though, the notion is squandered and given short shrift in favor of the much more mundane romantic angle: we’ve seen hundreds (thousands?) of takes on Romeo and Juliet over the years…how many films about parallel worlds with opposing gravities do you remember seeing? If you answered “more than one,” you’re doing a lot better than me, let me tell ya.

When the film actually takes the time to focus on world-building and puts the romance on the back-burner, there’s plenty of interesting, eye-catching stuff going on. Our first sight of the massive office room, with the upside-down matching floor right above, is pretty amazing and there’s a really cool sequence involving an extendable chair that managed to trigger my vertigo like gangbusters. A ballroom scene involving a mass of dancing couples, both upside-down and right-side-up, is instantly memorable, as is the Trans World tower, itself, that looks like it was pulled, wholesale, from one of King’s Dark Tower books. Visually, Upside Down has a lot to offer, even if the images are often murky and kind of ugly, alternately under-lit and over-blown.

At the end of the day, however, the film is really too obvious and ham-fisted to make much of an impact. There’s a strong central story, here, and plenty of good acting (Spall is typically excellent as Adam’s friendly “desk mate” and partner-in-crime) but it’s all in service of so much “more of the same” that the film ends up feeling rather generic, despite its wholly original central concept. I really wanted to be all-in here, but the film is just too dewy-eyed to ever take seriously. While I’ll admit that traditional romances aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, I’m more than willing to give a shout-out to any film that knocks it out of the park, regardless of style, content or genre: after all, films don’t get much better than True Romance (1993) and what’s that but a traditional “boy meets girl” story dragged through the gutter? Upside Down, unfortunately, never rises above the level of well-made, pedestrian entertainment: it’s a pleasant enough film, no doubt, but never more than that, despite how high it aims.

 

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