Jul 8, 2014
mahoganycow (All reviews)
Every day, in discussions about any subject: “I don't see how they can believe that.” “I don't know why they think like that.” Perspectives that don't mesh with our own are often cast aside, and some choose to build a comfortable nest of their own ideas without realizing that other viewpoints could be equally valid. Entire lives are lived in this fashion. And, yet, the ability to see through the eyes of another is dear to us as human beings, intellectually and emotionally invaluable. Case in point: Age finds Patema clinging to a length of wire, her feet pointed up towards the sky, utterly upside down, apparently floating. To Patema, though, Age is upside down, and she's actually falling past him. An impasse is reached. Do they argue the specifics of whose point of view is accurate, or do they offer each other a hand and meet eye-to-eye?

There wouldn't be a movie if they didn't opt for the latter. And they become quite a pair. Age is observant and intelligent, but sullen and despondent; Patema is upbeat and adventurous, but somewhat scatterbrained and clumsy. These are perhaps not the most unique attributes for the protagonists of an animated adventure film to possess, but what distinguishes them as more than lazy cliches is the ease with which we can see how each of them is a natural product of their respective environment. Age, once a dreamer with plans of leaving the ground and flying, has been beaten down in his day-to-day life by a society which believes that the sky is a source of death and destruction. Bereft of anyone to share his thoughts with, he has locked them away and chosen to meet the minimum expectations of his world with begrudging cynicism and indifference. Patema's world is equal but opposite—its rules discourage exploration as well, but out of a real desire to provide safety rather than to control. The people of the underground try to shelter Patema, and the result is a girl whose curiosity and enthusiasm far exceed her capabilities and knowledge. These two are not merely personalities dropped into a world, but characters built from the ground up to make sense in the world of Patema Inverted.

Moreover, their chemistry works with the simple grace that is characteristic of this film. Patema's earnest curiosity pulls the old Age back into the light, unearthing his buried interests and passions, restoring some of the childish happiness and optimism which he was forced to outgrow. He, in turn, provides the reason and restraint that she is lacking. Together, they're a force to be reckoned with, a billiard ball of measured recklessness careening through a world that has never seen their like.

The film follows their lead, rolling along from obstacle to obstacle. It carries the marks of veteran storytellers. It's paced brilliantly, balancing frantic, high-energy chases and momentous events against careful, deliberate exposition and instances of character introspection, maintaining a brisk speed while occasionally giving the film (and the audience) a chance to breathe and consider the impact of events. Despite the thoughtful and curious nature of its concept and setting, it neatly avoids the tar pit of wordiness and overindulgence into which stories of that nature have the chance of sinking; it is never too slow or too obtuse, instead rationing its heavier sci-fi aspects so as not to become overly ponderous. It foreshadows its twists and turns with admirable finesse and carries itself smartly, eventually leading to a conclusion which, while definitely a shock, ends up providing the satisfaction of a story brought to fruition from start to finish as one realizes that all of the requisite hints were provided, and it suddenly all makes smashing, effortless sense.

Visually, there is much to love. While the production values might not stack up to those associated with many feature films, this is nonetheless a pleasant movie to look at. Key character designs are refreshingly simple, yet distinctive, and backgrounds are filled with bright, glossy detail. However, it is Yasuhiro Yoshiura's skillful direction and cinematography which steal the show. A pan across a classroom shows, row by row, each student staring blankly ahead, except for Age, who gazes out the window at the forbidden sky. Patema fears the stars in that same sky until she sees their beauty reflected at an angle in Age's briefcase, truly aligning her perspective with his for the first time. Yoshiura's compositions and shots not only draw the eye with subtle technique, but reflect the theme of the film, wordlessly expose the thoughts of his characters, and imbue each scene with a sense of purpose.

It's worth mentioning, though, that the swift, simple and energetic nature of the film is a double-edged sword. When a light, pleasant story is told with such sure-handed competence, it's not unreasonable to wonder what could have been had the storyteller gone the extra mile in search of more creative ideas, more thematic resonance, more lasting impact. In essence, Patema Inverted is just a little safe. The settings—both Age's oppressive totalitarian society and Patema's underground village of peaceful outcasts—tread well-worn territory for sci-fi. The antagonists—the unquestionably evil, short-sighted dictator and his doubting second-in-command—are also old standbys. They serve their roles adequately, but unlike Patema and Age, they lack the foundation of character needed to be true standouts from their respective crowds. And while the film contains many tidbits about what we can understand and accomplish when we merge our perspectives, and the inherent fragility of close-mindedness, it's lacking the focused thematic punch in the gut needed to make a permanent impression.

That's not to say that Patema Inverted is a brainless work, that it's poor, or even that it's merely forgettable, airy entertainment. The opposite—it's not only entertaining, but also clever, deftly executed, artfully made, and chock-full of those little touches that make the difference between a tired, mediocre creation and one that is palpably bursting with the life, thoughts, and energy of those who created it. It might not aspire to greatness, but it's good with such confidence and efficiency that one can't help but smile.