My favorite moment of Patema Inverted occurs about fifteen minutes into the film:
Patema, a young girl who lives in a world of cracked and rusted tunnels and endless caverns, has been exploring the “danger zone” of the ruins near her home against her guardians’ wishes, in search of “the true world” her friend Lagos told her of years before.Confronted with a nightmarish creature in the dark, she stumbles and falls from the precipice in the darkness below, waking to find herself clinging to a cliff face. She descends the rocks and grabs hold of the metal railing beneath her and comes face to face with an upside-down boy, casually strolling along the grass that Patema sees as her ceiling.
She clings to this startled young boy, and soon she finds herself falling, the young boy being dragged into the air above the glowing skyline of his massive futuristic city. The music swells into bombastic proportions and the camera twists as the two of them fall/climb higher and higher/lower and lower into the light of the rising sun! It’s really quite beautiful; a masterfully animated and scored piece of cinema. From that moment, I was pretty surely hooked, eager to see where the movie would take me next.
How does that old cliché go? What goes up, must…
The upside-down boy that Patema discovers is Age (pronounced Ay-gee) who, despite whatever the title may promise, is Patema Inverted’s real main character, and the relationship that develops between him and Patema as their worlds collide is the primary focus of writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s 2013 science-fiction anime feature. Age is immediately drawn to the strange girl that fell into his sky, and soon after hiding her away in a lonely hilltop shack he begins to try and figure out how to get her back home.
Age’s world is as opposite to Patema’s as the opposing gravities their bodies are bound to, the towering skyscrapers and endless technological expanse of Age’s land being literally a world apart from the cramped, dark village that Patema fell from. The disparate lives of their two peoples are also immediately apparent: Where Patema’s people lived solitary yet seemingly happy lives deep underground, Age’s world is bound by the law and order of a fanatical cult that sees their people’s obediently and constantly turned downwards, declaring that those who are labeled sinners will be cast out into the sky.
How is it that these two worlds became separated not only by a miles of earth but by the very gravities that bind them to it? Will the kindly and headstrong Age be able to help return Patema to her home? What secrets will the two discover in their adventure that threatens to either unite or destroy their homelands? These are all questions that Patema Invertedwants us to be asking as its audience, but there is unfortunately another, more pressing concern that will be hanging over the heads of a good many of this movie’s viewers:
Imagine the cheapest, most plain bread you can possibly find. The knock-off of the Wonder-Bread knock-off that sells for ninety-nine cents a loaf at Safeway. The kind you get when payday isn’t for another week but you’re all out of food and something, anything, would be better than starving.
Now, imagine that all of the bread has been eaten, for the most part. All that’s left are the heels, those crusty end chunks that everyone knows nobody wants but the bread companies decide to throw them in the bag anyway because why the hell not, who even thinks this hard about the heel slices anyway? Take those stale, unloved chunks of bread and smush them together, over and over, mash them into little bits until your hands are covered in crumbs and broken dreams, and then scream to the heavens, “LOOK AT THIS BREAD. THIS IS ADVENTURE! THIS IS LOVE!”
That scene above probably has more charm and personality than Patema and Age do.
Cassandra Lee Morris and Michael Sinterniklaas both do their best to imbue their respective characters with some charm and chemistry in the English dub GKIDS produced for thePatema’s American release, but none of their cutesy gusto can save the movie from the fact that its two protagonists are trapped in a story as uninspired and dull as its visuals are vibrant and expressive.
And it’s a damned shame, it really is, because this is one gorgeously produced film with one hell of a premise. Every backdrop is lush and detailed, every movement from the characters is fine-tuned and expressive. The character designs are a little plain, and the CG props and backgrounds can be a little distracting, but for the most part this movie is just so pretty. The way that the film uses it’s angles and POV shots to show gravity upending itself again and again is fun and exciting makes for an experience is nothing of not pleasing to behold. Michiru Oshima, composer for shows such as The Tatami Galaxy and Full Metal Alchemist, provides a score that alternates between low-key, jazzy electronica and the overwhelming orchestra that accompanies the film’s flying sequences. She does an admirable job of providing the movie’s best scenes with a real sense of weight and resonance.
But this just isn’t enough. The world gives us a dystopian cult and a ruined world upon which its foundations are built and barely bothers to explore any of it. The villains of the story hunt down Patema and Age and wax exposition at them about some ancient catastrophe and the evils of the upside-down people, but there’s never anything propelling the actions beyond a seeming sense of obligation to retroactively justify the premise that fuels the movie’s best visuals.
At one point, Patema is captured by the leader of the cult that runs Age’s world, a despot named Izamura who is written with all of the sneering, cackling depth of a Dudley-Do-Right villain. After going on about about this and that regarding why he hates Patema’s people, whom he calls “Inverts”, he reveals that he killed Patema’s long lost friend Lagos and nothing can stop him from doing the same to her. He drags her to the roof of his tower, dangles her over an infinite maw of sky and….
Then he locks her in a tower, so Age can find her friends and rescue her. Why, exactly does Izamura do this, instead of killing her? Why does he give her an upside-down bed and leave her alone to be easily rescued instead of interrogating her like he promised he would? All any of the scenes with Izamura tell us is that apparently Yasuhiro Yoshiura takes his greatest storytelling inspirations from the manuals of old Nintendo games.
It’s ironic, that a film about the romance of defying the very force of gravity itself would have a grasp that so exceeds its reach. The movie introduces some moderately engaging twists in its third act in an attempt to course correct away from its tired ‘Save the Princess’ story-line, but it is too little, too late. By then, anyone who came into Patema Inverted for anything more than a pretty sight will have long since checked out. There are some films that can carry themselves on their visuals and concepts alone; Patema Inverted is not one of them. It is, at the end of the day, fluff: A very gorgeously animated movie with nothing interesting to say.
Final Grade: C+