Since speaking with visual-effects supervisor Scott Squires the other week, I’ve been unable to watch any movie without considering whether it respects the laws of Newtonian physics. “A large creature requires a few steps to ramp up to a certain speed,” Squires explained. “But frequently directors tell us make it faster, make it faster, make it faster. So, these big, heavy things end up looking like they don’t have any weight to them.” This would explain why I feel indifferent to so many recent effects-driven movies—I just can’t invest emotionally in characters and objects that seem literally immaterial.
That’s not to say I believe movies should obey a strict Newtonian realism. One of my favorite things about classic Looney Tunes and the films of Tsui Hark is how they play fast and loose with the laws of gravity and classical mechanics. What distinguishes those works from the typical Marvel Studios bombast is that they acknowledge they’re breaking the laws, making viewers feel like partners in crime. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s a matter of care. Have the filmmakers imagined the world of the movie down to how things weigh and feel, or did they fail to get beyond the surfaces?
The recent anime feature Patema Inverted (which screens again at the Gene Siskel Film Center tomorrow at 6 PM) illustrates how distinctive a movie fantasy can be when its makers really consider the physics of their scenario. Patema takes place several thousand years after a catastrophic accident reversed the law of gravity for most of the world’s population. The unlucky ones went underground (to keep from falling up into the stratosphere), where they built an upside-down civilization. Those who remained on the surface established a totalitarian society based on the supremacy of normal humans over “inverts.” The film kicks into gear when a girl from below ground accidentally falls above the surface, where she’s befriended by the sort of timid daydreamer-cum-audience surrogate who often ends up playing the hero in movie fantasies like this. Working together, the kids unlock the secret of the world’s gravity problem and overthrow the totalitarian regime.
On the whole, this movie doesn’t make much sense. (How did the inverts who got sucked into the sky manage to construct a city in the clouds? And how exactly does the totalitarian regime benefit from vilifying the people below ground?) At the same time, writer-director Yashuhiro Yoshiura and his team of animators devote remarkable attention to the physical logistics of the scenario. Some of the most captivating moments are those in which the two heroes navigate the challenge of getting around when one of them is always upside down. The filmmakers generate consistent suspense from the possibility that one of these kids will disappear into the sky or a bottomless chasm—”good, quality nightmare fuel,” as Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to say.