There are times when I look at a show and think – this is probably the most underrated thing in all existence. And then there are times when I look at another show, and say – this is so overrated that it’s an insult to human intelligence –I’ll refrain from giving any examples, so as to avoid treading on any toes (then again, *cough cough* Sword Art Online *cough cough*). Now, less frequently, there are shows which people say are overrated, yet when I watch it, my reaction amounts to something like – shrugs, I thought it was amazing, didn’t you? And on the flip side, there are shows nobody knows of…and my reaction to that is – yeah, I guess I can see why.
So let’s not beat about the bush today; I think Patema Inverted is one of those underwhelming shows, but the horribly irritating part about saying that, is that it doesn’t have to be. See, the premise of the story is actually really, really intriguing. We’re introduced to Patema, a bubbly girl who lives in an underground community of steampunk architecture, amongst people who have to wear astronaut-like suits in order to survive. Being an adventurous rebel, Patema does what all child protagonists in Ghibli films do (not that this is a Ghibli film), and explores the ends of her claustrophobic little home, despite her elder’s warnings not to do so. By fate, she drops into an abyss and suddenly finds herself literally hanging off the edge of the world – in a new universe where grassy fields are the heavens, and the ground seems to be the sky itself. It’s soon apparent that this new world is none other than the surface of the Earth, and for Patema, whose cells obey the laws of anti-gravity, it’s completely inverted. Instead of going on a holiday in this inverted world, Patema finds herself clinging onto an Earth schoolboy named Age, for fear of falling into the stratosphere. And then it turns out that the surface is run by a totalitarian regime that despises inverted people, and that they’re after Patema’s head, and there the conflict starts to kick in…
There’s something really brilliant about an idea like this. All it takes is a story that’s built around a single question. Attack on Titan asks the question – what happens when humans aren’t at the top of the food chain? Psycho-Pass asks – what if we could measure one’s propensity to commit crime? And Patema Inverted asks – what if there was a species of humanity who obeyed the laws of anti-gravity? The problem is, the answers that come aren’t exactly…satisfying. I mean, sure, half the time there’s this imminent heart-stopping fear of seeing Patema literally fall into the sky. But there’s obviously so much more to the story. How did the Inverted People become like this? Why are they so despised by the humans living on the surface? Is this divergence the reason why Earth’s surface has become overrun by militants? Is there ever going to be a way to reconcile the two human species?
And the answer to all this is – use your imagination! Yeah, I wish I could make this up. The truth is that, we as audience, are flung bits and pieces of the messy-sounding backstory, and told to assemble a very incomplete jigsaw – which means that the gargantuan gaps are best filled in my a healthy dose of extrapolation. There are brief hints about scientific experiments that led to the creation of the Inverteds, glimpses into the story of pivotal off-screen characters, and a whole load of mysterious but empty babble from people who seem to think that they count as villains. Nothing concrete, not even by reasonable inference, and nothing that amounts to any form of legitimate closure by the end. In fact, at the finale of the entire hour and a half, we’re hardly closer to the truth than when we first began, and the story finishes by throwing yet another spanner in the works, in the hope that the audience will rally for a sequel to be made. Well hardy-har har…no.
Now, the characters. Honestly, I don’t have much to say, apart from the fact that they are all, so, bland. Patema herself is the little sprite whom, as I said, bites off a bit more than she can chew when she goes travelling into the unknown spaces of her living quarters. That is all well and fine by me; I don’t actually have a prejudice against stereotypes, but it doesn’t do anything for her character when she first responds to danger by being a spoilt brat, and then changes tactic by relegating herself to the role of damsel-in-distress. Age, her supposed romantic interest from another world, is possibly a bit more engaging, and by a bit, I really mean a bit – since both he and Patema are essentially complimentary characters with the “I-want-to-break-free” syndrome, with the only difference being that Age gets to actively do something about it, by playing the brainwashed-citizen-turned-rebellious-hero. Don’t ask me why. Because he’s a guy, and whoever wrote this is marginally sexist, maybe? Who knows.
I know it sounds like I’m dishing this movie a lot of hate, but fret not, credit goes where credit is due. The artwork and designs are fantastic. Patema Inverted is another one of those shows which does world-building very well, and is able to construct two vastly opposing universes with subtlety and style. The Inverted underground is a steampunk labyrinth of sprawling pipes and metal cabins, claustrophobic but undeniably jolly and bustling – the boundless surface of Earth and the heavens above are vast but gloomy, expansive but lifeless. The Inverteds are caged within bulky protective gear; the humans on the surface are mentally confined within sterile classrooms. The final scene of Patema Inverted adds a further dimension to these opposites by ripping the background canvas and exposing another hidden fantasy land for us to feast our eyes on – although wracking my brains over the point of it all sucked he visual enjoyment out of the closing artwork. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the beautiful galaxies that came before.
The animation is also superb, mostly because the premise of this show rests entirely on physics – and on that front, the animation team really delivers. Everything from Patema hanging off a fence to her and Age flying through the air, is completely believable; and it was in the small things, like the way the tiniest of objects float in the air and swish around when force is applied, that added to my overall enjoyment. In between the frustrating lack of real plot, my attention would be diverted by the whole “Rotate the screen again!” craze; and really, because of the effort and accuracy that was put into this portion of the movie, I could almost forgive the show for otherwise being an utter failure. Almost.
The soundtrack is alright on the whole, because even where soft ballads try to reinforce the “Awww” factor of an emotional scene, I usually wound up thinking that there was nothing really emotional about said scene in the first place – I mean come on, Age, you just met the girl a few hours ago, and now you’re spouting honey-glazed poetry on how great she is when you see her upright for the first time?
So was there anything significant that I took away from this show? Well, I admit I always try to read a little into things, for the pure sake of it – and also because of my reluctance to write anything off as a waste of time. So with Patema Inverted, there’s a nice little message inside there, hidden among the cluster of poor writing and bland characters. It’s essentially a message about the benefits of anti-discrimination, if you want to give the writer that much credit, and it goes something like this. We meet people all the time, and occasionally we come across individuals who happen to be very different from us, and who don’t fit into our society, or our world view – and they have a pretty lousy time trying to even survive in what we call our natural environment. But hey, as Age’s experience in the Inverted world tells us – maybe it’s not so obvious that we’d have an equally challenging time in the place where they are most comfortable.
The solution, which is, to some extent, expressed metaphorically, is to pull together contrasting perspectives and to work together in complementing each other’s flaws and inadequacies. It doesn’t just mean the world to people who could otherwise not carry on without support, but it also enables us to expand our own abilities – and fly through the air, apparently. Okay, you know what, I’m pushing it; I genuinely don’t have much else to say which can defend this show – if it speaks to you in that allegorical life-lesson kind of way, that’s brilliant. I learned nothing from it. I could have, but I didn’t. Why? Oh, I’ll tell you why. Because for the metaphor to take flight, more needs to be done to expand on the ideas presented to the audience. Sure, the ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule still stands as always, but how do you honestly expect to move past the initial thrill of the physics, when it’s not explicitly reinforced that the discriminating villains are significantly disadvantaged by their refusal to embrace those who are different?
In summary, it’s fine to give this movie a miss. In fact, I have to say that (this being entirely from observation) some original anime movies are worth skipping if they aren’t popular, because there’s an alarming trend of movie writers trying to squeeze what could have filled out a 12-episode series, into a 2-hour long feature. Before you wave your pitchforks at me; let me establish that this obviously doesn’t speak of movies by established directors and studios – Ghibli, Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by skipping any of their stuff. But seriously, them aside, look at Brave Story. Another movie with gorgeous animation, and an unforgiveable plot. What ultimately bugs me, is that Patema Inverted could have been so much more than what it is, and in a fit of arrogance I shall point out what could make all the difference. A better attempt to explain the origins of the Inverted people, even if it involves physics mumno-jumbo about tesseracts and anti-gravity matter. Scrapping the Patema and Age fling thing, and focusing on the adult bromance that we’re only given flashbacks of. Rewriting the James Cameron Avatar ending and giving humanity the spark of some technology to neutralise the effects of Inversion.
Have I covered everything yet? I doubt so. But I wonder if it’s unfair to say that even the man on the street could have come up with a better direction and focus for the movie. It was as though the whole thing was cooked up by a bunch of obliging friends sitting in a circle, with A saying “Hey guys, I just thought about this really cool physics idea where people’s gravity pull are reversed”, and B goes “Guess what, I have an idea about a dystopian Earth where people are ruled by stuffy old men laying down discrimination policies”. C goes “Can we have some romance?”, D goes “Can there be a love triangle?” and E goes “Has anyone seen How To Train Your Dragon 2? Because there’s a really cool thing where there are ruined civilisations covered in greenery.” So there stands my verdict – it’s alright, but not worth watching other than for the art and animation. 5/10, and no sequels, please!