One test of creativity is not in how well you can execute an original idea, but what new life you can breathe into a shopworn one. If you can take something that's been on any number of shelves any number of times, and look at it in such a way that it seems new and adventurous, that's the hallmark of a real artist. Patema Inverted makes hay out of a premise that's been done to a thousand deaths in any number of young-adult dystopia stories: young people living in a gloomy and dangerous future rebel against their repressive (and repressed) elders, and discover their world is nothing like what they've been told it is. It's not the ideas on display here that win our attention and our fascination, but the clever and dazzling metaphors used to express them.
One man's ceiling is another man's floor
At some point in our history, the human race tinkered with gravity and unleashed a catastrophe, dividing the human race into two camps. The survivors on the surface live under a grim and repressive regime, where all citizens are monitored for the slightest deviance, and are exhorted not to fall into sin like the "Inverts" who live underground. For those poor unfortunates, and everything that's a part of their world, gravity behaves backwards. For young Patema, a girl growing up in the underground world, it's the world above (or, to her, below) that's a topsy-turvey mystery. Her world is a rabbit warren of tunnels, shaftways, hermetic compartments, and ductwork, reminiscent of something out of the design work of Juan Giménez or Moebius. She stumbles across a path to the world above when spelunking through an off-limits part of the underground warren where she lives with her people, and is struck speechless. She's never seen anything like the endless void of the sky, which she would have fallen into had it not been for a fence that she hangs onto for dear life.
It's then that she meets Eiji, a surface kid with a bad track record for wandering and letting his mind stray skyward, where the Inverted "sinners" have allegedly all been sent. Fascinated, he hides Patema in a storehouse, where she sits on the ceiling and peers out through the open doorway at the sky beneath her feet. His interest in her is more than just idle: Eiji's father once tried to journey skyward to see what might have happened to all those who were drawn up into it, and Eiji has been full of doubts about the official story about how all that played out. The world she's from might hold a clue as to what happened to him. Patema, likewise, remembers her own father journeying "below" (or, rather, above) and never returning one day. The two of them complement each other in more ways than one: by clinging to each other, their respective weights very nearly cancel each other out, and so the two can leap about and glide like Superman.
The forces that rule Eiji's world are not about to stand for any insurrection or questioning of the status quo, and so they imprison Patema and tell Eiji to forget everything he's seen for his own good. Then a one-man survey team from below arrives, looking for Patema, and with his help he's able to break Patema out of captivity. From there, the two of them lead everyone from both realms towards understanding the truth of what happened to all of them all those years ago — a revelation which turns everyone's worlds upside-down once more, and not necessarily just metaphorically.
It's the story that falls through, not the characters
It's not rare, I've found, for an only-okay or pretty-good story to have one brilliant element in it. For a movie, it might be some piece of design, a specific performance, or some bit of directorial flair. With Patema Inverted, it's the way the wrenching spindizzy of the inverted world(s) has been brought to the screen. When Patema first comes surface-side, the movie employs camera angles and careful editing to make us feel what she feels — that at any moment, she might lose her grip and go plummeting into a void. By the halfway mark, whenever a given character is out of their element, we find ourselves scouring the shot they're in for a place where they can rest safely lest they fall. It's that effective, and over time it adds up to the point where, by the two-thirds mark or so, both "up" and "down" in the film feel vertiginous and dangerous. I also liked how the device is used to express alienation: when Eiji goes below, he understands firsthand how jarring it is to not even be able to properly share a given space with others.
So effective is this device, in fact, that the story it's used to tell bulks all the smaller next to it. The young-adult dystopia playbook is by now well understood on both sides of the Pacific, it seems, and Patema mines elements from it that aren't so much reinvigorated by the movie's approach as they are simply given a more lavish deployment. The leader of Eiji's world, for instance, is a one-dimensional religious fanatic with no discernible complexity to his character, and no real personality either. He exists mainly as a way to put the heroes in peril, and as an obstacle to be dispatched. Contrast him with someone like President Snow from The Hunger Games: there's never any question he's a villain, but he's been fleshed out with recognizable human attributes, and isn't just a seething, wide-eyed vessel of monomania. It's also something of a letdown how the movie resorts to conveniences of plotting, and a couple of fairly shameless coincidences, to move its story along.
What does work, though, is the little stuff. The whole way Eiji and Patema experience each other's respective worlds is visualized is alone worth seeing the film for, but there's also way the two deal with each other as people — the way they grow closer to each other, discover each other's secrets, and learn how they both have different incarnations of common ambitions. All of that reaches its emotional peaks in the moments when the two of them share the same spaces (one above, the other below) or cling to each other for dear life. It's all the audience can do to resist the temptation to throw its own arms around them as well. For those reasons alone, Patema Inverted is worth seeing, even if the whole still feels like notes towards another, better film. But all that might pale in the face of experiencing one of the best arguments yet for anime in IMAX.