Director: Juan Diego Solanas
Screenplay: Juan Diego Solanas
Cinematography: Pierre Gill; Editing: Dominique Fortin & Paul Jutras
Production Design: Alex McDowell; Set Decoration: Paul Hotte
Costumes: Valérie Bélègou; Score: Benoît Charest & Sigur Rós
Stars: Jim Sturgess (Adam), Kirsten Dunst (Eden), Timothy Spall (Bob Boruchowitz), Blu Mankuma (Albert), Kate Trotter (Becky), James Kidnie (Lagavullan), Nicholas Rose (Pablo), Holly O’Brien (Paula)
All that glitters is not gold, so in the midst of award season hyperbole it’s prudent to step away from the madness for a moment to better assess the situation. To my mind the most visionary movie about Gravity released in 2013 was not made by Alfonso Cuarón but fellow Latin American director Juan Diego Solanas. For its imaginative breadth and creativity, the Argentine artisan’s gravity defying Upside Down has it all over the more hyped, big-budget epic with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Still, it’s curious that both directors chose to explore the subject of ‘space,’ figuratively and literally, this same year. The emergence of their mirroring movies, eerily akin to Solanas’ own subject involving parallel planets, seems more than simple synchronicity. Perhaps it has to do with the interest Latin American governments have recently shown in developing their own space programs.
Upside Down, which Solanas also wrote, involves twin earths caught in the embrace of each other’s gravitational field, with one having been stripped of its resources by the other in the form of a multi-trillion dollar corporation called TransWorld. Adam (Jim Sturgess), a less fortunate denizen of the exploited under earth, ignores TransWorld’s embargo against contact between planets to pursue Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a childhood sweetheart from above. It’s a tale as old as time, that of the cloddish peasant in love with the pampered princess, but setting it in this futuristic alternate reality allows for a visually dizzying new spin on the concept of upstairs/downstairs. Cross-class romances such as these are characteristically described as dealing with lovers from different worlds, but Solanas takes that premise to the next level. In Upside Down the two vastly different worlds the lovers inhabit are quite literally different worlds.
With any contact between those worlds “extremely dangerous and totally forbidden,” everything is arrayed against them being together. Even the laws of nature herself are tugging the pair in opposite directions. It’s going to be an uphill struggle, fighting gravity all the way, to surmount such obstacles. “We are the only known solar system with double gravity,” Adam’s introduction relates, “Two twin planets whirling together around one sun… Now in our world it’s possible to fall up and to rise down.” As these immutable laws are laid out, the simple physics of the film fascinate us from the outset. “All matter, every single object, is pulled by the gravity of the world that it comes from and not the other. An object’s weight can be offset using matter from the opposite world, inverse matter.” After a short period, matter in contact with inverse matter burns, so those below pilfer it to heat their homes. When Adam lights his old-fashioned potbellied stove he doesn’t strike a match to it but instead places a sparking nail beside a piece of inverse matter that promptly ignites. Passing around the leaden bars as though they were ingots of gold, people barter in it to pay their debts and TransWorld employees like Adam draw shares of the priceless metal, keeping each allocation in a personal refrigeration system so it doesn’t spontaneously combust. As a commodity, inverse matter is more precious than gold.
Upside Down is predicated on the increasingly popular notion of the plurality of worlds and parallel universes but for dystopian sci-fi, Solanas’ story seems strangely sweet natured. It actually possesses the warmly familiar quality of fairy tale, so it opens prosaically enough with the two leads as children lost in the deep, dark wood. The narration, from some distant point in the future, describes this as “the dark times,” aligning it with the unenlightened, superstitious beliefs of our own dark ages, the era from which many modern legends and myths spring. To bubble and brew the special flying pancakes and other concoctions she whips up in the kitchen, Adam’s aunt Becky, a benign witch figure, must gather her own secret herb, a mystical ingredient that resembles pink powder. This special residue is produced by bees that move freely between the intermingling atmospheres of alternate earths, cross-pollinating both worlds by feeding off flowers from each.
Adam is sent to collect this fairy dust from the forbidden Sage Mountains which stretch high above the cloud line, the only place where pink bees can be found. And it is here, at the top of the world where their planets come closest to touching, that he first meets Eden. Poles apart, they seem nearest one another when standing at the tip of their polar ice caps. The unified stratosphere forms a scenic view, with wispy, intertwined cloudbanks curling and swirling into one another in aesthetically pleasing formations, creating the impression of one continuous sky. Sitting on the edge of a precipice awaiting his beloved, Adam cuts a romantically forlorn figure, not unlike the Pumpkin King from Tim Burton’s Nightmare before Christmas. When he canoodles with Eden, she’s wedged wrong side up in the nook of this same overhang. Tethering her like a balloon in such fashion is the only thing keeping her from floating away. It’s an enchanted image out of a storybook that was never written down.
The anchor of gravity literally defines how high people rise in Upside Down. Much as genetic engineering limited individual potential in Gattaca, gravity here is treated as an albatross. So Eden doesn’t feel so trapped, rooted to just the one spot, Adam hoists her up on his shoulders to get her out and about. With her in his arms he’s walking on the moon, every time he takes a flying leap the gravity of her own world opposite hoists him higher in the air, making it appear as though he really were traversing an ethereal lunar landscape. Negating one another’s magnetic fields in this way brings them as close to nirvana as it’s possible to get, serving as foreshadowing for the blissful communion to come. At a distance the couple resembles figurines silently cavorting in a snow globe where eternity stands still. With romantic snow falling as slowly as down feathers this tableau has the dreamy quality of fantasy. Adam’s once upon a time narration may be laid on a little thick, lulling one like a bedtime story, but it too seems suited to the fairy tale atmosphere.
Once the movie shifts to the high rise conglomerate of sleek, sterile office complexes that comprise TransWorld, it takes on a different tone, layering the fantasy with the slightly sinister air of industrial espionage and corporate conspiracy thriller. It retains the same sense of headiness, but now we’re so high in the sky we can practically hear our ears popping. Solanas is a better visual storyteller than he is a scriptwriter but a more complex narrative would simply have distracted viewers from drinking in the dazzling visuals which are ornate enough to sate us. Production designer Alex McDowell and set decorator Paul Hotte, abetted by their army of assistants, reference some of the classics of the sci-fi genre, like Gattaca and Brazil, Metropolis and Blade Runner, even the “7 ½ floor” from Being John Malkovich. But Upside Down’s digitized architectural blueprint gives it the freedom to concoct a wildly inventive visual look all its own. Sometimes the lines and perspectives of the overhanging, foreshortened buildings make it appear as if the city were folding over on itself, like the dissolving dreams in Inception. At others, the land in the sky has the hazy indistinctness of a mirage, Fata Morgana.
When lit at night, the cityscape above looks like the inside of a circuit board, a futuristic variation on Van Gough’s Starry Night. The twinkling ‘skies’ are actually dotted by the electric lights of the world above rather than stars, though they burn as brilliantly, affording a spectacular view of the power grid. This is sci-fi for the 21st century. Even the terminology of tenured TransWorld worker Bob Boruchowitz, who takes Adam under his wing, has an architectural ring to it. “Men, we’re like real estate agents. We buy, sell, keep our options open. Women, they’re more like contractors. They build to last.” The sage advice of this placidly centered Buddha is made to seem all the more sound by having him nestled in a comfortingly familiar neighborhood laid out like little English row houses, all in a line. The TransWorld elevators start in the negative digits, for those from down below like Adam, who are made to feel like something less than zero, and go higher and higher, all the way into the double positives. The note stuck to his back tagging him as a loser is endemic of his own lack of self-worth. Adam enters the forbidding TransWorld building to find security tighter than an airport hub. He’s swiped with metal detectors, x-rayed and warned “You’ll be thoroughly searched and weighed every time that you leave the premises.” This scene, governed by paranoia of infiltration by outsiders, is intended to resonate with anyone familiar with landings and departures in our post-9/11 age. Adam is made to feel like a criminal even before he’s done anything wrong, with his boss cautioning him against socializing with his betters or attempting to smuggle any upper world materials off company grounds. While the executives on top wear power suits, he’s given the general issue blue coat of a lowly lab technician. Staffed by identically dressed worker bees, TransWorld de-emphasizes the individuality of the masses below, like the shift workers in Metropolis that moved as one body. Asking what all the people on his side do, it’s explained that they’re glorified guinea pigs, “They’re merely adapters. They adapt our products to your world.” The list of candidates for his clinical trials is handed to Adam with an extender rod, as if he were a dangerous caged animal being fed through the bars.
TransWorld’s corporate conglomerate is like a retro chic, conformist ‘50s concept of big business with office spaces subdivided and the identical cubicles hanging over top resembling florescent ceiling lights. Given our linear perspective, the parallel lines of the office floor recede to a vanishing point on the event horizon that appears to stretch off into infinity. It’s the same endless, impersonal business space we’ve seen before, in movies like The Crowd and The Apartment, only doubled by the mirroring from above which visually increases the spatial vastness. It allows the high paid executives up top to literally oversee the labor of the underlings they look down on. This is a fantasia for men in grey flannel suits so watching Adam’s subversive machinations in the name of love is like cheering on the rebellion of a clockwork orange. Upward mobility into the executive suite by climbing the corporate ladder is conceived as a literal vertical ascent, much as it was when Harold Lloyd scaled that building face in Safety Last. Adam is an up and comer, but for climbers like him there’s a glass ceiling to impede them from reaching the top. Left cold, hungry, at large for trying to raise his station in life, he’ll be reduced to sleeping under a bridge like a bum so he doesn’t drift off. As object moral lesson, a billboard ad for the face cream that was meant to make his fortune can be observed playing in the background, still intoning the skin deep fabrication “uplift yourself today.” Even this anti-aging wrinkle cream Adam invents is based on the principle of upward lift. His unguent reverses the effects of gravity on the body, sagging skin being drawn upward when pink pollen is applied. He’s marketing insta-quick face-lifts, like those cellophane wrap tightenings in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Still in the developmental stages, when he applies this makeup to a mannequin, the head only holds a few seconds before melting away like candle wax. Hilariously demonstrating his invention on a wrinkled dog breed, the cream takes years off, leaving the captivated creature no longer buried beneath its folds. The way Adam applies his miracle cream during these demonstrations, dabbing fingers gingerly in the ointment and using his eyes to measure the cracks and fissures cutting through faces with unerring accuracy, he betrays the passion of a true, obsessive artiste.
Much of the movie’s offhand humor deals with the unforeseen physics involved in Adam’s dallying in the world above him, despite the opposite gravitational pull that keeps trying to drag him back down to his proper place. Slipping on leaded shoes weighted with inverse matter, which behaves like a magnet, when he tries to tie his laces the counterweights keep lifting his legs skyward until he’s eventually upended, head over heels. In older movies sets were built that could rotate around actors, making it appear as though they were in a revolving drum during the spin cycle, but here computer graphics solve that problem. When Adam flips upward, there’s balletic elegance to his movements; he’s as graceful as Fred Astaire in his famous ceiling hopping number from Royal Wedding. Later a fugitive from justice for interloping on earth above, Adam’s excited tie threatens to give away his identity by floating straight up. We’ve so trained our eyes and brain to become accustomed to such fanciful things that when the smoke from a cigarette floats freely in air, the natural action seems discordant in context because it’s at utter odds with all the other strange sights.
“People have a funny way of seeing things here,” Bob counsels. “Anything or anyone different is, well let’s say, frowned upon.” Though a frown is just a smile turned upside down, Bob feels different himself because he’s the only person left in the enormous corporation who uses cigarettes anymore, inhabiting TransWorld’s designated smoking area all alone. Bob’s surname may further help explain why he feels like such an outcast in this genetically engineered gentile paradise. Inveigling Adam to acquire rare stamps from his side, as though it were a foreign postal zone, they’re like black market racketeers exchanging their hot goods under the table. Collector Bob returns the favor when a pitiless TransWorld finds him expendable and tosses him out after thirty-one years of service, giving Adam the paraphernalia he’ll need to pass himself off as Bob in the upper world. Treated like a dog by the company he sacrificed the best years of his life for Bob, in fellow feeling, takes with him the animal Adam had used in his experiment, explaining “with these jerks you’ll probably end up in a tin can.”
Holding the box Bob leaves him upside down for fear its inverse contents will float back to the opposite end of the office, the authorization badges and identity papers inside allow Adam to continue the pretense that he’s from up top. He’s much like the insecure hero of Solanas’ French short The Man without a Head, who likewise tried to pass for someone he wasn’t to impress the girl of his dreams. Having squirreled enough inverse matter from his quota to foray for short periods into the upper world, Adam is placed on a tight time table to win Eden back. Strapped down and taped up with the bars as if smuggling drugs across the border in a bullet proof vest, he is cautioned “You won’t last an hour with these counterweights on.” Aware that after a short period of time Adam will start sizzling, the suspense is pulled taut as we turn the oven timer on and wait for him to be incinerated.
Weighted down with the matter, which keeps his feet planted firm on the ground even while he drifts through life with his head in the clouds, Adam’s lead boots soon start sparking and smoldering. Fanning the flames by racing down the street like a fleet-footed Apollo, he takes to flight by leaping off a bridge into the river below. As he doffs the burning rubbers anchoring him to the terra firma Adam, in the movie’s most visually arresting moment, shoots straight up into the stratosphere. Resembling an ocean of air encircling the earth, the cloud banks would appear to present a double layered barrier, yet allow him to pass through unimpeded as the camera tilts on a 180º axis to follow him down. He descends like a feather at first, but the closer he gets to his own earth the stronger the effects of gravity and the faster he plummets, landing in the parallel waters of his world opposite. It’s one of the most spectacular crash and burns ever witnessed onscreen, not unlike a NASA space shuttle reentry. Splashing down this ignominious way might as well be a bucket of ice water thrown on Adam’s dreams. With pride singed and smarting, he is Icarus having flown too close to the sun.
The only authorized contact between earths is through TransWorld, which hangs suspended between the two like a connective umbilical cord. It’s a hub where the forces of gravity are neutralized, allowing for closer contact between people from both planets. This huge funnel building might be a wormhole linking the vastly different spheres. Resembling that crooked papier-mâché Tower of Pisa constructed by Eden, who works for the firm as a graphic designer, TransWorld is an enormous drilling rig that simultaneously reaches up into the clouds and down through the ground. For all we know it might burrow all the way to China, the opposite side of the atlas where, we’re convinced as children, people walk upside down anyway. The giant corporation is its own self-contained futuristic city with big bay windows framing a sun that seems closer to earth, the distance away of a lunar satellite, its rays glinting in the background like solar flares and producing some spectacular sunsets. Flooded with bright light, the upper world is given an overexposed, white gleam, while down below it seems perpetually overcast with intermittent downpours of black rain.
Oil spills have left slicks leaking down upon Adam’s world like torrential showers, becoming the steady stream that should be falling to cleanse the surface by cutting through the crude. Constantly covered in grime the city imparts the appearance of soot coated coal country. The closer the two worlds get to touching, it’s purifying snow that the heavens produce rather than these oily trickles, but the crystal clear precipitation Adam is seen chasing up in the Sage Mountains as a boy sprinkles in the opposite direction, raining straight up, power-washing the land above. Both Adam’s parents died in this same TransWorld oil refinery explosion that destroyed much of the city, leaving him an orphan. He blames the exploitative corporation for his bereavement and the mourning sky weeps bitter black tears in commiseration with him. The sign Adam bicycles past on his way to work decries ‘Caution Oil Leak,’ positioning TransWorld as a space age Exxon Valdez, just another multi-trillion dollar company not accountable to anyone. Similarly raping the environment in order to fuel its own interests, it’s become a hazardous waste of natural resources leaving the lower earth an ecological disaster. We’re told TransWorld exports cheap oil from down below and sells them back overpriced electricity beyond their means, while the fat cats up top grow rich and prosperous off the profit. The direct correlation between TransWorld’s practices and the exploitation of Third World countries, specifically the tapping of oil reserves in the Middle East, is made quite explicit. This all-powerful corporation seems to be the superpower all others are answerable to. With its TTW news station televising political executions as warning against defying the state, TransWorld would appear to control the media as well. The implication is that big oil companies with politicians in their back pocket might as well be running government themselves.
As with Fritz Lang’s city of tomorrow in Metropolis, cinema’s first real classic of the sci-fi genre, the haves and have nots are set against a scenic design based on vertical parallelism. While the upper crust inhabits a world built high into the clouds, like Lang’s Tower of Babel which reached into the realm of the gods, the lower class toils in the grimy bowels of a gone to hell earth that resembles some Cold War satellite of the Eastern Bloc. This impression is exacerbated when Adam is rounded up on the street by Transworld enforcement agents and his abduction staged to appear as if it could have been carried out by KGB under Stalin. Similar associations are dredged up in other scenes as well. When the trespassing lovers are pursued by Secret Police for instance, it’s as though they were trying to defect from behind the Iron Curtain. Workers from down below dress drably and ride bicycles since few have the money to afford cars. This economically depressed, totalitarian state seems Orwellian in its design so when the bell rings for the TransWorld employees to queue for review it’s like a siren from Big Brother to amass before the monitors. There’s a preternaturally pacifying voice heard in the heavens when Adam slips out on the street, striking the date and time in electronically even tones and wishing all “a Better, Brighter tomorrow.” Solanas was born into an Argentina wracked by a succession of brutal military dictatorships and his unfavorable impression of life under the fascist heel has bled right over into the film.
Adam’s world down below has been given the shadowed, earthen look of some haunted Medieval village in a German Expressionist classic. He is a tinkerer in an electronics repair shop where he works on technology that seems from an earlier age, such as antennae TVs with manual dials. A world away from the highly polished, sterilized, space age design of TransWorld, this warehouse surrounded by refuse strewn streets seems to be located in some abandoned industrial factory topped with smoking chimney stacks. With his disheveled hair, suspenders drawn over long underwear, and in dire need of a shave, Adam could be a mad scientist mixing his pink pollen solutions in bubbling beakers and test tubes. Pouring over lab notes on inked parchment embossed with field notes, his diagrams seem similar to the ones that decorated the opening. Esoteric alchemical illustrations, they might have been reprinted from the Voynich manuscript. Adam’s experiments, fraught with trial and error, are only slightly removed from the mixing and measuring his aunt once did, using the same ingredients to taste test new recipes.
The only chance that people from below have of bettering themselves is by selling out to TransWorld. TV prize shows offer winners the chance to change their lives by working for the company; it’s considered tantamount to winning the lottery. “We have nothing. Yeah, we’re from down below, that’s just the way it is. I mean, we have nothing…” Adam chokes. “If I can use TransWorld and Aunt Becky’s pink powder to give my life some kind of hope then I’m gonna do it.” To him, it’s a chance to change his failing fortunes and improve his lot in life, moving up in the world by raising his net worth. Adam’s preoccupation with paper airplanes embodies his desire to soar into the sky. It’s the paper plane Adam tosses as a child, a plaintive message in a bottle landing on the shores of the world opposite, that serves as his initial introduction to Eden. As an adult, his garret has a sky window that lets him look out onto the lingering earth above, dreaming of that ‘better, brighter tomorrow.’
Once his anti-aging beauty cream is perfected, it’s destined to take off into the stratosphere and Adam uses that fact as a bargaining chip to wangle his way into an entry level position at TransWorld where he knows Eden works, hoping to get closer to her. Handing over his promising formula to them rather than letting his underworld employer Albert market it, he’s accused of selling out, foolishly allowing himself to be exploited by the same corporate interests that have made such a mess of his world. “Those people are vultures and you’re going to give them your golden goose for peanuts,” Albert rages, referencing another fairy tale image. TransWorld policy is akin to the unbalanced idea of separate but equal. “Word of warning,” the company cautions, “We scrupulously observe a full separation between worlds here. That means there’s to be no unnecessary contact with those on top.” The segregationist aspect of this enforced apartheid is stressed by associating Adam with his black boss, who regards him like a son, and resents his attempts to ‘pass.’
When his friend Pablo asks “Why are you so obsessed with those people?” the effect is much the same as when independent presidential candidate Ross Perot sabotaged himself by referring to blacks as ‘you people,’ during his 1992 campaign. Still, Adam is living out all the vicarious fantasies of those kept down and curious about the more glamorous lifestyle up there. Even Albert admits to having wondered how the other half lives (“Maybe now you’ll know.”). But despite Adam’s best laid plans, the truth will out as the heat slowly rises and he starts billowing smoke signals. When Eden’s neighbors are robbed the authorities are quick to racially profile, claiming it was a thief from down below. Adam ‘s own shag cut and five o’clock shadow mark him like Cain; the cops could spot his distinguishing features a mile away (“Don’t make that face!” Eden warns him). Standing at a urinal after trespassing up top, his jet streams straight up, hitting the ceiling and setting off the fire alarm. He can’t hide what he really is inside. Though Adam believes he’s manipulating the system, it’s quite the opposite as he finds he can only take his product so far before it’s plucked out of his hands by the industrial complex, appropriated to make them a mint. One upper world exec even has the audacity to ask if they could market a cheap generic version for poor consumers from below. Having stripped the lower earth of everything else it has to offer, ideas and inventions are now subsumed by the state. “That’s the TransWorld way,” Bob observes. It chews up everything it touches, including its own employees. The corporation wrests Eden from Adam, same as they took away his aunt ten years earlier and parents even before that. Separated from her a second time, the paradise she promised seems lost to him forever. Having glimpsed Eden and seen that the grass really is greener on the other side, Adam is disconsolate now, unable to find contentment in his world and forever barred from hers. He assumes such a defeatist demeanor, if it weren’t for Eden and Bob’s intervention, reaffirming his assertion that it is possible to reverse the effects of gravity, he’d be lost. Though Bob’s explanation of the solution he hits upon to prevent people from bursting into flame sounds like jabbering gibberish and our minds zone out, we’re still happy he has proven his continuing viability as a force to be reckoned with to the company that wrote him off as redundant. Played by the eternally taken for granted Timothy Spall, when Bob triumphantly declares “TransWorld is gonna curse the day they fired me!” he’s living out another universal fantasy shared by every disgruntled employee.
Both Bob and Albert are presented as orotund father figures to orphaned Adam. They’re meant to be flip sides of the same coin, both made to feel like nothing in a world that considers them to have little to contribute. Upper and lower variations on a theme, they’re like two halves of one soul themselves. So when one gets Adam the patent that the other had promised him, it seems all the same to us. Bob magnanimously buys the rights to the pink powder under the name Albert & Co. before TransWorld can steal it, and though he’s joined in the same shot with the smiling, approving Albert, who once claimed he could get the patent himself, the lingering implication is that those from below still require help from on high to save the day. This happy ending seems to cast Bob in the guise of benevolent great white father which I suppose is apt considering he’s much like Adam’s own fairy godfather. In his final scene he’s flitting and fluttering about, as light on his feet as an inflated balloon after having sprinkled himself with the pink dust.
In Upside Down everything seems to have been turned on its head, and the visuals ingeniously use mirroring to depict Adam and Eden’s two worlds simultaneously. The parallelism reinforces their class divisions by allowing us to take in what’s going on both above and below in the same mise-en-scène. In one great shot that captures both strata of society simultaneously, while the privileged from up top dance on the ceiling of the Café Dos Mundos, those from down below trip to the light fantastic at ground level. The café interior resembles a remodeled Spanish galleon or some lush, red curtained opera stage, with an enormous chandelier on the ceiling of the ballroom dividing the frame and the classes in half. The tango salsa playing sounds vaguely South American, like the director, but the impression is that of a waltz dream, with patrons dancing on air.
Dabbling the way Upside Down does with charming French surrealism, Solanas’ short The Man without a Head was a virtual sketch for these Café Dos Mundos scenes. Cutters Dominique Fortin & Paul Jutras also take advantage of parallel editing to compare and contrast the lives of the two lovers. Where Eden drinks a martini made of inverse ingredients, holding the wineglass upside down to prevent it from spilling, Adam is seen preparing the pink bee potion that will gain him entrée into TransWorld, bringing their divided hemispheres together. In a later, echoing scene, when Adam opens the welcoming bottle left on his desk the inverse liquid spills straight up, exploding as though it had been shaken and not stirred. This intercutting links the main characters visually across the vertical gulf separating them physically. Upside Down even utilizes old-fashioned, Pillow Talk split screens when Adam and Eden communicate by telephone.
Racing to snatch Bob’s receiver when Eden calls, as though he’d been desperately waiting by the phone all day, Adam is seen conversing upside down as he attempts to move into her world right side up. People have a funny way of seeing things here indeed. These flip side angles are dizzying for viewers, keeping us off balance and disoriented, so much so that we occasionally get the urge to watch the film standing on our heads. Such inverted shots will aggravate a many as they enthrall. When Adam follows his TransWorld orientation officer, the camera remains at hip level but tracks along with him, now upside down, as he follows her along the corridor. When upper and lower floors share the same space like this, people frequently seem to be hanging like bats from the belfry, depending on whose perspective Pierre Gill’s incredibly adroit camera chooses to take.
Summoned before the corporation’s managing director, Adam must fasten himself by seat belt into a chair that’s then hoisted up to his intimidating overseer’s eye level so he can sign his work release. It’s a modified version of that hydraulic barber chair gag from Chaplin’s Great Dictator and seems to have been contrived for the same purpose, to subliminally enhance feelings of inferiority in the poor person sitting opposite. When Adam is diminished by his forbidding TransWorld boss (James Kidnie’s Lagavullan looks like a bloodless Ben Kingsley at times), his chair slowly lowers back down to ground level, his stature seeming to shrink proportionately as the lecture runs on and the camera slowly pulls back, making him appear smaller and smaller.
The parallelism is applied in more subtle ways as well. When Adam is shot while trying to lower Eden up to her world, for instance, he falls backward onto the hard earth with a thud, in a position that’s directly equal but opposite to Eden’s own station after tumbling forward face first. Where his snow angel breaks her left wing, he’s wounded in his right. Everything up above is the equal and opposite of everything down below, which is why the movie adopts a similar mirroring structure mid-way through with events repeating themselves. Meeting again at their old trysting spot, Adam and Eden are cornered by border patrol at a quarry pit that resembles the steel exoskeleton of a crashed dirigible. Great slabs of excavated rock are chained down in the weightless environment so they don’t float off.
The desperate illegals take advantage of their earth’s joint magnetic fields, hopping back and forth over the slag heaps suspended in air as they’re again shot at. It’s a reiteration of their last tragic encounter from nearer the beginning, with Eden trying to keep the slipping Adam from falling this time while stray bullets whizz by. Just as he gradually lost his grip on the rope tethering her, when she can no longer support both their weight it’s Adam who falls back down to earth. But just as Eden’s descent was broken by the snow, he survives by a similar miraculous agency, alighting in the soft thistle of pine trees. In restaging the earlier scenes this way, the movie jogs our memories as strongly as Adam jogs Eden’s.
Romantic sci-fi doesn’t get more exquisite than this and with its weightless imagery, Upside Down has hit on the ideal visual metaphor for elating love that leaves those under its sway feeling like they’re floating on air. When Adam falls in love with Eden, he literally falls, head over heels. Making love, the two are suspended horizontally in the neutral limbo between their conjoined worlds, affording us a breathtaking view, with the solar eclipse flaring in the background like romantic firelight. This moment is even more swoon inducing than the iconic one of Dunst kissing Tobey Maguire while he dangled from his silver strand in Spiderman. Upside Down visually conceptualizes the chemical and physiological changes that occur in the body when two hearts beat as one. In the movie’s terms, the attraction of opposites seems to be predicated on the relationship of atoms, physics itself.
Caught in the gravitational pull of parallel worlds, Adam and Eden are drawn to one another at the molecular level, like positive and negative ions. When they bond it sets off a chain reaction and such crackling chemistry is generated between them, we wouldn’t be surprised if sustained contact resulted in a flash fire. That vital law of physics Upside Down establishes about matter in contact with inverse matter burning, suggests that such forbidden love is fated to flare up uncontrollably, consuming those susceptible enough to be drawn to the flame. Indications are that Adam and Eden, who can’t be kept apart, will be immolated by the fire down below, the torch they carry for one another taking them out in a blaze of glory like those long-suffering lovers in Like Water for Chocolate. That movie originated from Solanas’ spicier side of the world, so maybe it’s being born below the border that breeds these head-spinning romances that don’t seem governed by the rational laws of physics.
The movie’s parallelism is extended to the reoccurring twin motif. “Some people say that true lovers are one soul that is separated when it’s born,” the opening narration muses, “and those two halves will always yearn to find their way back together.” This romantically suggests that Adam and Eden are two halves of one whole, just as their twin worlds serve as mirror reflections. Caught in each other’s orbits but prevented from symbolically intermingling in physical communion, these identical earths are used as the yin and yang counterpoints to the male and female energies in the universe which must be brought into confluence to achieve harmonious balance. Defying the laws of gravity by committing interstellar intercourse, the lovers disprove universal invariables (“these laws are as old as the universe itself… unchangeable and there are no exceptions.”).
Adam philosophically contemplates, “Gravity, they say you can’t fight it. Well, I disagree. What if love was stronger than gravity?” He sets out to prove sound his theory that love, the universal language, is far superior to the universal laws of mathematics. So given the parallelism it’s not surprising that when there’s an unheard of connection between inhabitants from both worlds it should result in a twin birth. Solanas’ loopy science seems to make perfect sense in a poetic sort of way. Sharing one womb where they float buoyantly in amniotic ether, twins represent a metaphorical re-conjoining of those two separated souls rent asunder at the beginning of time. Conceived between worlds the star children born of this union are capable of thriving in either parent’s gravity, so it’s Eden’s rounded womb that ends up establishing equilibrium between earths while the orphaned Adam, who only ever wanted a family, ends up with twins well on his way to starting one of his own.
The rope Adam and Eden use to traverse into each other’s worlds serves to link the two together, heaven and earth, like Jacob’s Ladder. They’re connecting their planets in a pure way that’s been warped and corrupted by the interlinking TransWorld. The universal laws the movie establishes are replete with all the spiritual connotations the Western world attaches to concepts of vertical ascension. Such free association isn’t off base because many elements of this sci-fi fantasy have been shaped in the frame of religious parable. Looking in from outside for instance, the people down below believe it must be “paradise up there,” assuming those who rise into the stratosphere are headed in the general direction of heaven.
His own illusions shattered, when Adam hears two kids naively declare this, he speaks from experience, “Paradise? You know guys, I don’t think so. They might be rich, sure. But it’s definitely not paradise.” All the same it’s clear that the names Adam and Eden are not meant to be coincidental. Instead, they’re posited as the original couple committed to forging a new world from the force of their feelings for one another (“We didn’t realize yet the repercussions of what we’d done. Our love would forever alter the course of history…”). Eden even brings Adam forbidden fruit from up top, purple pomegranates, the shade of passion (“They’re the best.”). Rather than a duplicitous Eve figure who instigates Adam’s exile from the garden, however, it’s Eden herself to whom paradise is lost.
Eden can’t remember anything before her fall, when she was cast out of the idyllic utopia she shared with Adam and to which she can never return until her past is unlocked. She joins an Amnesiacs Anonymous support group to brief us on her memory loss so we have an inkling of what poor Adam is up against. But the promising scene, which starts out satirically, ends up feeling entirely extraneous; it’s pure extrapolation. Eden’s amnesia may be the movie’s weakest, most dramatically contrived plot point, even if it is meant to stress the insignificance of those down below by showing how easily they’re forgotten. Adam is crestfallen she would pretend not to know him, especially after he attempts to jog her memory (with the subtlety of a sledgehammer though he’s convinced he’s being subdued) by peppering their conversations with references to the past. Still, her subconscious is shown struggling to resurface. Eden’s latest project, popup art done in what looks to be a combination of origami and silhouette cutout, is of the Sage Mountains and she experiences reoccurring dreams where the moon shimmers with an iridescent old timey flicker, reflecting something half-remembered from her past. Eden gravitates to bars like the Café Dos Mundos that allow the two worlds to intermingle (as she tells Adam, the band playing there is from ‘down below’) even while amnesia fogs her mind, preventing her from remembering exactly why she’s repeatedly drawn to such places, what it is she’s searching for. As she confides in group, “Mostly it just feels like something’s missing.” What’s missing is Adam, her soul mate, her long lost other half referenced in the prologue. Left bereft, she’s yearning to metaphysically reconstitute herself. From a specious perspective Eden could be regarded as the incomplete sex, the proverbial unfulfilled female without a man in her life who can only add materially to the plot by conceiving a child. Yet the movie’s echoing of events serves to undermine this impression. It begins with Adam unable to hold on to Eden and ends with Eden unable to hold onto him, though she can’t let Adam go again now that she’s finally found him. The role reversal suggests that something intrinsic in the dynamics of their relationship has shifted, implies that he’s somehow dependent on her now. But these sensory impressions never fully emerge to the surface the way Eden’s memory eventually does. When she recollects her first meeting with Adam, we might dismiss it as false memory since we don’t recall hearing what she says (“I can’t talk to you… you’re from down below.”), though we too were present at the occasion. Since the voice of the adult actress is looped over the one playing her as a child it might better be accepted as the reason she won’t talk to him now. Raised not to associate with those beneath her, Eden must lower herself to Adam’s level in a sense, descend from her higher planet down to his world. When Adam awaits her arrival at the end he’s looking upward, expecting her to come down to him, but she surprises us by instead running up from a lateral direction. With her chemical constitution having been altered by the new life forming inside her, she can now meet him on common ground, allowing them to find equal footing. Eden’s biochemistry instantaneously invalidates all the skewed laws designed to keep their worlds apart. Becoming pregnant proves liberating for Eden in a most literal sense. No longer bound to one planet or the other, she’s free to alight wherever she pleases, her long ago wish being granted. And her condition makes it clear why the secret of the pink bees was passed down through the women of Adam’s family. His aunt Becky had been forced to initiate him, her last surviving relative, into ancient knowledge which should have been his mother’s by rights. Eden appropriates it back into the female line. With her bruised blond beauty and hooded, smoky eyes, Kirsten Dunst has an aura of slightly sad wistfulness that fully brings out this material, so suffused with misty memories. Hitting all her marks, the actress gives such a warm, soulful, fluid performance that I wish the character she plays had been more strongly written. As with most sci-fi, the fantasy dreamscapes envisioned by the director seem more relatable to laymen when associated with things already familiar to us. It helps viewers stay oriented, stabilizing their vitals in alien environs. For instance, the two leads have been cast in order to draw on associations with earlier parts the public already associated them with. I think Dunst is far more endearing dallying with her lowborn lover here than she was as a depressive in Melancholia, in which her wild mood swings were dictated by the waxing and waning of the moon as another planet entered earth’s orbit. That lacerating movie was about two worlds on a collision course as well, and Dunst parlays her performance over into this vaguely related sci-fi premise.
Jim Sturgess, who appeared in the mind bending sci-fi Cloud Atlas and sailed Across the Universe even earlier than that, seems to have had his role imprinted with these antecedents in mind. With his disheveled Mod mop, Sturgess’ working class stiff, who wants something more than the raw deal life has handed him based solely on where he was born, is akin to the British angry young man he played in Across the Universe. His attraction to cool, classy blonde Evan Rachel Wood in that movie might have been a dry run for his similar feelings for Eden here, and Sturgess’ wrong side of the tracks shagginess matches up equally well with Dunst’s uptown girl ambiance. Even Upside Down’s main musical theme sounds like a stray melody from Across the Universe, vaguely Beatle-like. Benoît Charest & Sigur Rós’ overarching score is extravagantly romantic to match the lushly beautiful, ornately Byzantine visuals, perfectly complementing the grand design of it all. Much as his character did in 21, Sturgess’ Adam finds he can’t beat the house when the cards are so squarely stacked against him. “So that’s it. They won. I lost. I just lost everything… I was naïve to think I could change the world. Up there, they always win. Down here, well we always lose.” The chipmunk cheeked actor has the drape of a longshoreman and there’s a galumphing, shaggy dog quality to Sturgess in this role that’s quite appealing. At times he recalls the moony acolyte played by fellow Englishman Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, bringing the same loopy brand of unabashed romanticism to this part. Wishing to leap up into the sky and lasso a sparkling diamond so far above him, Adam rhapsodizes “There’s one very special star that makes me think of one very special person.” His association of Eden with a star, twinkling, remote, likewise suggests our first sight of Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, descending from that trapeze. The upper world hovers over oppressively, like an ominous cloud, but as long as Adam knows Eden is up there somewhere, every light is like a brilliant heavenly body just out of reach, to be dreamed about and wished upon.
The meta associations with what viewers may already be familiar with don’t end with the stars. Despite its veneer of superficial sci-fi Upside Down has a tenuous enough grasp on social realities to keep its politics planted firm on the ground. A French-Canadian co-production, it’s been infused with the sensation of being caught between worlds itself. Rather than American capital, it was produced by Studio 37, Onyx Films and the Montreal-based company Transfilm a name so close to the movie’s own corporate conglomerate that the ties between art and reality are drawn even tighter. The polarities in Upside Down’s own bilingual country of origin between two cultures and languages and the strong, European look and feel to the film, despite the presence of its English-speaking stars, all factor in to enhance the sense of spatial distortion and unclearly defined lines of demarcation. It helps form the fabric of the film itself. As cinema, Upside Down seems to be suspended in stasis between the advanced countries of the northern hemisphere and the less developed lands to the south. “There are hunters with guns and border patrol trucks,” Eden tells Adam, as if they were manning the Mexican-American border. The movie’s depiction of illegal crossings, border patrols and the disproportionate economic states between lands North and South of that invisible divide resonate strongly with the Argentinean director. An émigré himself from the less prosperous countries below, surely Solanas could relate to Adam’s anxiety as a stranger in a strange land, operating on a temporary worker’s visa under the imminent threat of deportation. Eden’s desire to go anywhere she wishes likewise speaks to the paralysis of those barred from freely crossing international borders so when she and Adam later flee immigration authorities, they’re meant to be accepted as illegal aliens themselves. Inter-world interlopers arrested for such criminal trespassing are unceremoniously lynched on national television, the gravity from their own world doing the job by suspending them straight up, while rabid reactionaries who want the borders closed to keep the country free of foreign influence foam “We don’t go down to their world, and we certainly don’t want them coming up to ours.”
The son of filmmaker Fernando Solanas, with whom he fled to France in 1977 to escape the political upheavals of his native country, Juan served as apprentice and cinematographer on many of his father’s films, learning his craft from the best. In addition to his short The Man without a Head he penned the story to La león and served among the corps of directors on the American documentary, Jack Waltzer: On the Craft of Acting. Solanas’ one major feature prior to Upside Down was Northeast, which screened at Cannes in 2005 and directly anticipated many of the themes further developed in his rather remarkable follow-up. Northeast’s intriguing story contrasted the lives of two women living in different corners of the globe, one from the modern, industrialized city of lights and the other from the undeveloped districts of Argentina which haven’t kept pace with the changing times. Solanas’ interest in exploring the ever widening gulf between lands north and south of the equator was evocatively conveyed in this first feature, which addressed the inequity between high-tech, modern society, and disadvantaged Third World countries whose inhabitants are falling further and further behind the bell curve.
Given the increasing advancements in current technology, Solanas sees the cultural gap as being so great that modern man may as well be inhabiting different worlds right here on his own planet, an idea which he’s carried to its extreme in Upside Down. Like this film, Northeast also used the cardinal directions metaphorically. Retracing the trajectory of Solanas’ own exile to Europe, the title referred to the more highly advanced northern continents to which the tired, poor, huddled masses seem to naturally gravitate. Having been forced to flee the warm clime of South America for the chillier northern extremes, the disoriented director must have been left feeling as though his own world had been turned topsy turvy, and in this movie he’s fancifully mapped that emotional migration as a child might conceive it, as a vertical ascent straight up. His Upside Down, which frequently feels to have the bends, might be the result of this increase in altitude, with the richer oxygen of the upper hemisphere appearing to have thinned Solanas’ blood. That dizzying sense one gets, hyperventilation and vapors, from the lack of air at high elevations has suffused the entire film. It’s so aesthetically elating it’s apt to leave viewers feeling as though they had just inhaled a balloon full of helium.
While other filmmakers are falling over themselves to exploit the virtual reality possibilities of 3D, Upside Down has daringly opened up a largely untapped, alternative route for movies to explore, a kind of 4D in which people can move not just forward and backward and side to side, but also up and down like creatures of the air and the sea, like that fish happily englobed in its blobby, floating pink bubble near the end. No other film released in 2013, not even Gravity, played with spatial dynamics with more vigor and imagination. Most movies issued in the widescreen ratio use the horizontal expanse of the big screen to emphasize space and distance. Those released in 3D toy with the illusion of depth. Upside Down proved unique by emphasizing the height of the screen rather than the width and it’s only after seeing through Solonas’ eyes that it dawns on one how infrequently the cinema has exploited this angle. Despite their subject matter for example, neither the Oscar-nominated, animated short Head Over Heels nor Hitchcock’s Vertigo took full advantage of the screen’s possibilities for visual verticality.
Silent directors used black masks to block out information on either side of the screen, focusing attention on the action occurring at center, but this idea of vertical lift hasn’t been developed much further in the century since. And given Upside Down’s dismal box office returns it’s unlikely many others will consider it an advantageous route to follow the director down. If the film had done better in its limited release or critics had responded more encouragingly to its artistic aspirations, it might have opened up an innovative new avenue for cinema to explore in the future. Nevertheless, Upside Down was far and away the most visionary film of the year and Solanas’ striking direction fully brought out the stylized scenic design. Nearly every shot is an absolute stunner, envisioning imagery unlike anything ever seen onscreen. One is left flailing to find artistic bearing in the world he creates, our imagination deviating from true magnetic north and spinning wildly, like an out of control compass.