Some time in the near future, a scientific experiment involving gravity goes horribly awry. As a result, gravity becomes reversed for many people; rather than being held to the ground, these “Inverts” are now pushed away from the Earth’s surface, forcing the survivors to take refuge underground. Generations later, the surviving population is divided into two separate societies: the underground society of the Inverts, and Aiga, the totalitarian surface city.
Patema Inverted begins, like these stories tend to do, with a precocious teenage girl who has little time for adult-imposed boundaries on exploration. Patema, the daughter of the Invert chieftain, has a habit of wandering near a large chasm called The Danger Zone (get your Kenny Loggins jokes out now). Unbeknownst to her, this chasm leads to the surface, and to the non-inverted people of Aiga. One day, a scuffle with a “bat man” (a black-clad Aigan soldier who is exploring the tunnels and, from Patema’s perspective, walks on the ceiling), Patema falls through the chasm and onto the surface. Before she floats away into the sky, however, she is saved by Age, an Aigan boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, a would-be explorer who once tried to defy the fanatical government and see what lay outside the city.
If the broad strokes of the story described so far feel familiar, they should. Once Patema Inverted‘s two teenage love interests from different worlds have their first magic moment together, it’s no challenge at all to predict the path the story will take to its end. Our rebellious teen heroes meet, fall in love, and face adversity from ignorant authority figures, only to then discover secret knowledge about their fantastical world that they will use to bring their two divided communities together. None of the turns of the plot, or the secrets Patema and Age uncover, will come as much of a surprise. And it’s a credit to Patema Inverted‘s charms as a story that it can tread such familiar ground and still be as enjoyable as it is.
Like writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s previous work, Time of Eve, Patema Inverted uses a fantastical premise to explore the way societies create barriers between people, and how overcoming those barriers creates empathy and, ultimately, understanding. In Eve, humans discover that when they encounter their android servants in a social setting where both hold equal stature, the differences between man and intelligent machine become harder to discern. In Patema Inverted, the Inverts and the Aigans view each other as freaks who could never fit in with “normal” people like them. When Patema and Age first encounter each other, they view the other with a mix of wonder, horror, and confusion, which eventually give way to mutual respect and compassion. Once you get to know someone, the fact they think the ceiling is the floor doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all.
The moments where characters from the two worlds interact are the obvious highlights. The scenes where Age and Patema walk through an open space, awkwardly clinging together to keep the other from “falling” into the sky, are all particularly beautiful moments for the way they capture a simultaneous mix of simultaneous emotions. They are confused, amazed, scared, and excited, all at once – all the things one feels when encountering something unknown, depicted through the act of trying to walk while holding on to an upside down person. Patema Inverted succeeds as a movie because it fully embraces the metaphorical meaning of its science fiction premise, which gives Yoshiura the opportunity to indulge in the movie’s most effective directorial flourish. Rather than maintain a fixed position as to which characters are upside down, the perspective from which the characters are portrayed changes depending on their emotional state and the power dynamics between characters; just because a character is standing on the floor doesn’t guarantee that they will be the one right side up in the frame.
In most cases, Patema Inverted overcomes its utterly predictable story by injecting a surprising amount of life and emotion into the relationships between its characters. And its worst moments come, unsurprisingly, when it fails to do so. The most obvious weak spot comes in the form of the antagonist, Izamura, the leader of Aiga. While the rest of the characters experience conflicting emotions, Izamura feels just one: the need to be a cackling supervillain. He sneers, he plots, he torments the innocent, he makes Mr. Burns finger steeples without a hint of irony – and he never amounts to anything more than the panto villain he appears to be at first glance.
Patema Inverted is a movie of few surprises and simple pleasures. If you prefer your sci-fi to be philosophically heady and complex, then to you it will most likely feel insubstantial. But as a simple coming of age story and an earnest exploration of the experience of encountering the new, it’s perfectly satisfying.