Some of the coolest science fiction movies of all time are love stories — Eternal Sunshine, Brazil, and plenty of others. Combining big ideas with an epic passion just makes sense. But why do so many films fail to pull off this combination? Watching the new movie Upside Down, which fails so spectacularly as a love story, you inevitably start to wonder. Relatively minor spoilers ahead...
It's hard to hate a movie like Upside Down, which is so gleefully nonsensical. This is one of those movies that throws logic out the window right off the bat. And then, for good measure, the movie backs up and drives over logic a few times, crunching it into tiny fragments. Then the film proceeds to scoop up the logic chunks, and crush them into a fine powder, which it then snorts, causing a fatal brain hemorrhage. The movie then carefully excavates its own clotted, lifeless brain and throws that, too, out the window. And so on, and so on.
You may have seen the trailers for Upside Down, but here's what it's about: there's a place somewhere in the universe, where two identical planets are facing each other, and gravity works really weirdly. The two worlds are literally "upside down" to each other, so that one planet's sky is the other planet's surface. And because gravity is magic, the people on Planet A are only attracted to Planet A, and not to Planet B. In fact, if you manage to visit Planet B, you'll still be upside down, in danger of falling back to Planet A at any moment. You'd have to grab onto something on Planet B, or weight yourself down with Planet B materials, to keep from falling off the planet's surface.
Still with us so far? This is where it starts to get silly.
We learn, in the movie's first couple minutes, that if any matter from Planet A goes to Planet B, or vice versa, it will burst into flames after one hour. This is because it's "inverse matter," and touching matter with the wrong gravity causes spontaneous combustion. Also, the people on Planet A are rich and powerful and the people on Planet B are poor and oppressed, because oil. Literally, that's the explanation we're given: "because oil." To underscore this, oil occasionally rains down on the poor oppressed people of Planet B. And the main characters died in an oil refinery explosion. Oh yeah — and poor people on Planet B steal stuff from Planet A so it'll catch fire and heat their squalid little homes. Contact between the two worlds is highly illegal, even though you'd think nobody would really want to go to a planet where you'd spontaneously combust almost immediately.
This is only what we learn in the first three minutes, give or take, of Upside Down. The film gets much, much sillier later. Every time you think it can't possibly get sillier, it finds another pocket and pulls out something even more ill-thought-out.
And that's fine, because we love silliness. And sometimes really contrived worldbuilding offers a chance to do some thought experiments, or create a compelling metaphor. Sometimes, as in the case of a lot magical realism, you accept a scenario that doesn't entirely make sense because it is such a neat poetic image, and allows for some great storytelling. In this case, the two opposing planets are clearly supposed to be a metaphor for class divisions or the artificial forces that keep people apart. And they do make for some arresting visuals, although the movie struggles to represent the interactions of the two worlds, and their strange geography, in a way that makes visual sense.
But it's all just a set up for a love story, after all. Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) is Adam, a lovable dreamer with a comb allergy, who grows up on the impoverished planet "down below." As a child, Adam meets Eden (Kirsten Dunst) who's from the the rich and privileged world "up top." They meet thanks to two high mountains that allow them to touch, and they become best friends, and they later have a super-brief teenage romance — until they are cruelly separated. Ten years later, Adam realizes Eden is still alive, and becomes determined to be reunited with her, no matter what it costs. A lot of this is conveyed by some of the treacliest voice-overs you ever did hear. Sadly, "gravity-crossed lovers" never become even slightly convincing or involving, and not just because nothing in this movie makes any sense.
And yes, they really are called Adam and Eden — because that's much subtler than having her be named Eve.
Watching Upside Down fail to tell a sweet romantic story is actually sort of painful, and completely overwhelms whatever joy you might be getting from laughing at the movie's science and world-building. At some point, this film actually becomes an object lesson: Its failure to concoct any kind of compelling relationship story feels like a cluster of symptoms.
So here are some lessons how not to make a great science fiction romance, via Upside Down:
1) Lean on the high concept. Don't fall into the trap of using your fancy world-building as a backdrop for the characters and their lives. And whatever you do, for god's sake don't let the concept propel the characters, or serve as a metaphor for what's going inside them. Instead, follow Upside Down's lead, and keep endlessly building on your mythology and world-building. Every time it seems like your characters might start developing a life of their own, crush them under more random plot wheeling and implausible ideas. Remember, if it's ever a choice between developing the characters and developing the world, always develop the world.
2) What a great romance needs is pointless obstacles. We don't root for lovers because we want them to be together, we root for them because of the obstacles in their path. It doesn't matter how little chemistry your heroes have, or genuine interest in each other — all that matters is that the obstacle course between them must be akin to Gallipoli, crossed with one of the Joker's funhouses. Any couple becomes dreamy, if you make it hard enough for them to be together. (If you didn't ship Bill and Sookie, it's only because there weren't enough acid moats between them.) In the case of Upside Down, the fact that Adam and Eden can't be together without, you know, bursting into flames isn't obstacle enough — the movie starts inventing more and more ridiculous reasons they can't ever meet, along the lines of "she's got a peanut allergy and his sweat is pure peanut oil." (I made that up, in the interest of avoiding spoilers. But it's basically along those lines.)
3) What every romance needs is an insane dystopia. We already covered the fact that Upside Down takes place in a horrible, oppressive world, because oil. And the movie piles it on and on, desperately — it's not just a horrible dystopia where one whole planet exploits another economically, there's also an evil corporation, which looks like every evil corporation you've ever seen, except that half its employees are walking on the ceiling. At a certain point in this movie, I half expected someone to inform Jim Sturgess that he'd been selected for the Hunger Games. We actually can root for a couple even without there being a totalitarian regime for them to overcome. Oh, and the evil oil company is obsessed with making the perfect beauty cream, of course. Because oil.
4) You know what goes well with whimsy? More whimsy! I love whimsy. Like all right-thinking people. Zany humor, sugary weirdness, oddball characters, wry voiceovers... I like it all. But you can't just pile frosted sugar on top of frosted sugar endlessly, or you wind up with a diabetic landslide. Upside Down basically decides, at some point, that what will really sell the romance is not genuine emotion or honesty or whatnot, but just rivers of burnt sugar.
All romances are prone to goopiness and idiot plots — it goes with the territory. But with a science fiction romance like Upside Down, in particular, there seems to be a much greater tendency towards ideas that are somehow both overcooked and half-baked; towards world-building that's over-the-top and ridiculous, and towards using the "anything can happen, amirite" spirit of media science fiction to throw endless nutty obstacles in the way of the romance. There's no reason you can't use the toolkit of science fiction to serve the relationship between the two main characters — but the temptation to use those tools to build some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption instead appears way too strong.
So... should you go see Upside Down in the theaters? Or rent it, once it's available on DVD outside of Taiwan? Absolutely. This movie is epically hilarious, in ways that I can't even get into without being way too spoilery. Over at the AV Club, Tasha Robinson has a pretty great (spoileriffic) rundown of all of the wackiness in this film, and she also makes a pretty compelling case that this film is a drinking game waiting to happen. (Albeit one which will lead to lethal levels of alcohol poisoning.) It's the new The Happening, basically.
Upside Down may totally fail to sell you on the love between Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst, but it will bring you together with your loved ones. In laughter, which after all is the purest and noblest weapon we have against gravity.