It doesn’t matter how many droopy sweaters you put Kirsten Dunst in, and in Upside Down she wears quite a few: She always looks luminous, as if she’s just slid down to earth on a sunbeam.
Actually, that’s an image writer-director Juan Solanas could have run with in Upside Down, his romantic fantasy about a boy, Adam (Jim Sturgess), and a girl, Eden (Dunst), who come from two different mythical worlds, one of which defies the laws of gravity as we know it. As special-effects movies go, this is a relatively modest one, but Solanas knows that imagination can take audiences further than lavish budgets will. The picture’s best moments are often the simplest, as when Solanas turns an ordinary kiss between his archetypal lovers into an outtake from a dream Cirque du Soleil: The boy’s feet are planted firmly on earth as the girl reclines on a rock hovering above—the point where their lips meet is the true center of gravity.
Solanas comes up with some arresting images in Upside Down; it’s in telling the story that he stumbles, getting so tripped up in the allegorical details of his invented universe that his characters suffer. The plot is needlessly woolly, like something Douglas Sirk and Philip K. Dick might have sketched out on a cocktail napkin. Sturgess’s Adam is a bright young man from an impoverished, burned-out planet known as Down Below. Dunst’s Eden comes from Down Below’s far richer neighbor planet, Up Top. The two are connected by a glassy office tower owned by the exploitative Up Top megacorporation TransWorld. Contact between Up and Down is forbidden.
But wait! It gets worse. Adam and Eden actually fell in love as kids—she’d sneak way from her planet to visit his, until the authorities caught them out and separated them, seemingly forever. But when Adam, now a very studious adult in shabby clothes, devises an anti-aging cream made from the pink pollen of special bees, he seizes the chance to infiltrate the Up Top world and win back his ladylove. The hitch—it’s actually just one of many—is that Eden has developed amnesia and doesn’t remember him.
Solanas (the son of Argentine filmmaker and politician Fernando Solanas) leans too aggressively on the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots—the metaphor doesn’t need much spelling out. Dunst is radiant, as always, though it’s radiance with depth: She’s not just your average dream girl, she’s gravity’s rainbow. But there just isn’t enough of her. Instead, we get way too much Sturgess, whose incessant newborn-lamb routine comes off as affectation.
But Solanas—who has made one previous fiction feature, the 2005 drama Northeast—and his cinematographer Pierre Gill have enough visual tricks in their bag to keep the movie from deflating completely. The finest is a sequence set in a ballroom in a half-upside-down world: A chandelier sprouts from the floor, and the dancers strut and twirl on an elaborately fresco’ed ceiling. The moment is less Inception than it is Fisher King-era Terry Gilliam; it’s all fleeting, crazy magic, the kind of thing that can happen only when a filmmaker thinks both upside-down and out of the box.