Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Cinema File #83: "Upside Down" Review

I've given Cloud Atlas a lot of crap on this blog and on my podcast this year, and I think that after giving it some time, my main problem with the film was and still is the fact that for all its ambition, the whole grand scope of the thing just seemed like a hollow attempt to couch the same old high fallootan psuedo-intellectual Wachowskian crap in a new more palatable package. Saying that Cloud Atlas is more palatable might sound strange considering how outwardly inaccessible the movie is, but despite taking us to places as disparate as a slave ship, the 70's, the far flung future, and the even farther flung future, the thematic backbone of the film, with its over-simplistic pablum and pandering, might as well have been Forrest Gump even before you threw in Tom Hanks making funny voices. I bring all of this up again to highlight another movie I've just seen, Upside Down, also starring Jim Sturgess, and also set in a strange sci-fi world, which unlike Cloud Atlas fully embraces and exploits the ingenuity of its premise and never promises any more than it delivers, a delightfully rather than painfully simple romantic fantasy.

Upside Down tells the story of two star crossed lovers literally of two worlds, specifically two adjacent Earths separated by inverted gravity, so that when they look up from the ground, instead of sky they see the sprawling city landscape of their celestial neighbors. As much as I talk about Cloud Atlas, watching this film actually invoked another, considerably more irritating movie from last year even more, namely the remake of Total Recall. The same themes are present minus the faux-gritty action garbage, with two societies separated by both prosperity and gravity, and there's even an amnesia plot device, evil corporate malfeasance, and several very pretty CGI enhanced chase scenes. More to the point however, Upside Down's penchant for reminding me of other films only served to enhance the experience of watching it as I realized just how much better it was at employing the same themes, effects, and set pieces.

In the first five minutes of opening narration, we are greeted with the rules of this strange set of worlds, and while I'm almost certain some if not all of them were broken by the end of it, I was just so damn rolled by the earnest charm of the movie to care at that point. The various ways in which people travel between worlds, some more dangerous than others, leads to some of the most brilliantly stylish imagery I've seen in a long time. Characters fall up and down through the air, make love in mid-air at the apex of the phenomenon, and jump across vast distances in at least one scene that looked like it was almost taken straight out of Super Mario Galaxy. And still, most of the action of the film takes place in relatively mundane environments that use the inverted gravity gimmick to great effect, presenting the casual acceptance of people going about their day while, depending on one's perspective, a whole room full of other people are walking on the ceiling. This movie is simply gorgeous, to the point where I would recommend it solely for the visual aesthetic alone.

That is not to suggest that the story or the characters are completely worthless, though if you come into Upside Down looking for something as deep as its premise is convoluted, you'll most likely be disappointed. This is fairly typical "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again" love story territory, and even with that said, it could be done a little better. I usually judge these kinds of things by the degree to which misunderstandings drive the conflict solely because no one thought to clarify the situation, and on that score, here there be some bad writing monsters. That being said, the two leads are really good together and sell the shortcomings away as best they can, and successfully for the most part. They are helped tremendously by Timothy Spall and Blu Mankuma as two lovable old codgers who ultimately help push the two together, and as much as my cynicism wants to shout the film's many flaws down, I just can't bring myself to get angry at such a fantastical and heartwarming romp of a movie.

It has the kind of over the top happy ending and melodramatic emotional turns that you always need to expect and forgive when it comes to movies like this, and much of the story is driven by a plot device of magic pink pollen if you can believe it. What I'm saying is, the hard hearted among you might have a steep hill to climb to embrace the child-like wonder Upside Down is trying to foster inside your cold dark souls, but if you give it a chance, I think you might be surprised by how much it will stick with you. In short, Upside Down is the movie Cloud Atlas, and technically Total Recall should have been. But they weren't this movie, so watch this instead.

Also its only like 90 minutes and doesn't have Jessica Biel in it, so there's that.

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