Article By: Dan Clark
Shane Carruth burst onto the scene in 2004 with his intricate Science Fiction drama Primer. The complexities of that film have propelled an endless amount of analysis and debate. It is the type of time travel movie that does require you to do ‘diagrams with straws’ to completely understand everything that is going on. Carruth showed with Primer that you could explore big ideas with a limited budget. Nearly a decade later he has finally come out with his highly anticipated next project. Upstream Color shares many similarities with Primer. It ventures into the genre of Science Fiction with a unique concept rooted in a surreal reality. There is a multitude of moving parts that cause you to constantly play catch-up, and it is evident that you will need to watch it multiple times to completely comprehend what exactly is happening. With that said, the themes it conveys are quite rudimentary in their depth. It wears its ambiguousness as an oblique shroud to cover up some severe issues, like a number of rather wooden performances. Still, it provides a cavalcade of intriguing ideas that beg to be dissected. Those who feel the Science Fiction genre is void of new ideas would do themselves a huge favor by taking a chance with Upstream Color.
Although it fits within the world of Science Fiction, it is not necessarily a type of film general audiences associate with the genre. There are no robots, futuristic tech, or heavy doses of computer graphics. Carruth explores outlandish concepts not through high tech gadgets, but through means of organic discovery. Worms are specially designed to allow a person to mentally control another human being. A connection is formed and through that connection a person can dictate their subordinate’s actions on demand. A young woman named Kirs (Amy Seimetz) is fed one of these worms without her knowledge. She is forced through a number of actions including emptying her bank account. When she finally breaks free all the events become a blur as she remembers only small fragments of what happened to her. Her life becomes a mess until she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth). They share this uncommon bond that neither really understands. Together they begin to explore this bond in hopes of better grasping what this all means.
Of course any description of this plot will always be incomplete. Carruth’s strategy is to present the narrative with a rubicon esc structure that has you placing all the different components together yourself. When you have a world of films that pander to the lowest common denominator it is a pleasure to see one that treats its viewers as adults. The premise of what is taking place is, for the most part, straightforward. Carruth gives you just enough to fully understand the basic plot structure. Not that the narrative is absent of complexities. Motives and the meanings behind many of the character’s actions are left obscure. We know the where and the what, but the why is purposely kept away from us. In layman’s terms, story elements can get confusing if you do not fully pay attention.
The subtext in this messy mosaic provides a lot of fodder for debate, though you cannot help but wonder if we are putting more into it than is actually there. When you dive deep into the ideas of the film’s foundation they are not actually all that rewarding. Themes like identity, personal connections, and the cycle of life feel shallow for such an elaborate concept. It’s like we are given this enigmatic algorithm that requires intense calculations of the highest order. When the answer is finally discovered we are left emotionally spent. Then when we peak down at our discovery we realize all that work was done to simply determine how many feet are in a yard. Some may still find pride in all their hard work, while others will be left distraught over all the time wasted.
Another issue that plagues the film is the lack of quality performances. Amy Seimetz is decent at times in her role, but she never gets much room to deliver any true emotional damage. Shane Carruth is utterly insufferable as Jeff. Carruth is obviously a very intelligent person with many fascinating ideas, but he has no acting ability whatsoever. Directors place themselves into films all the time, and it typically does not go very well. Especially in a case like Carruth’s that requires a lot from him. He reads line with a shallow brevity as if he was randomly chosen for a local car dealership ad. The film would have been a lot better off if he chosen someone else for this role.
One thing Carruth can clearly do is direct. The imagery he comes up with is striking. Moments like watching these worms take control inside a human body or seeing the title of the film come to life in array of beautiful color are memorizing in their execution. It hammers home this opaque atmosphere fraught with longing. We, along with these characters, are placed into this sea abstruseness. As they search for understanding we conspire beside them in hopes of determining what this all means. Our discovery may not be as fulfilling as we could hope for, yet there is something to be said for a journey that is willing to forgo the normal tropes we require. There is nothing quite like Upstream Color out there, nor will there ever be. Though it doesn’t come close to the master work of Carruth’s first film, it is still an experience worth doing.