Shane Carruth appeared out of nowhere in 2004 with his debut film ‘Primer’, a genre-bending subversion of the time travel concept that was highly meditative, incredibly scientific and infamously impenetrable. The film received ecstatic reviews as well as taking the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Now, almost a decade later comes his sophomore effort, an equally unusual riff on the sci-fi genre that refuses to follow any conventional rules whatsoever.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a lost soul. After falling victim to an elaborate theft that left her drugged, confused, covered in self-mutilations and with no memory of the event, her life has gone off the rails, leaving her without a job and all her assets. One day, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), and for some reason they cannot explain, there is an instant connection, some sense of destiny and belonging, and a link to a common experience neither can remember. For Kris and Jeff may not just be in sync with one another, but with a greater organism than themselves.
‘Upstream Color’ is a hard film to condense or explain. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that narrative clarity and the logical succession of imagery isn’t one of Carruth’s preoccupations; rather, you experience an hallucinatory fever dream meditating on the nature of love and connection. There’s no doubt this is a science fiction film, especially from the hypnotic opening act depicting Kris’ abduction, drugging and infection from a mysterious worm-like organism. However, Carruth seems as fascinated with the science as the fiction, and while it’s never clear how the logic of the film works (choosing ambiguity and information-through-image rather than dialogue-heavy exposition), there’s a sense of verisimilitude to the film, ignoring the traditional tropes of the genre that have started to feel over-used and tired. Everything is communicated and captured with so much realism that, if you’re willing to submit to the film, the outlandish plot points and gaps in information don’t matter so much. It also helps that Carruth is such an accomplished, visionary filmmaker. There are very few films around at the moment with the visual beauty and aural tapestry of ‘Upstream Color’, and this is entirely thanks to Carruth’s powers as an auteur filmmaker. As well as director and actor, he is also the film’s producer, writer, director of photography, co-editor and composer, and his proficiency in all these fields demonstrate his immense skill as a visual artist. The film has a tremendous unity of vision that helps what appears to be unrelated elements flow together beautifully. You might not be able to articulate exactly what meaning lies behind the film, but there’s no doubt, like ‘2001’ or ‘Blade Runner’, that there’s certainly something bubbling under the surface.
Carruth also makes for an arresting leading man, forging a terrific amount of chemistry with the equally impressive Seimetz. There is an intensity to their performances and connection, without which much of the film would fall apart. Carruth might be able to frame a shot beautifully and edit it with finesse, but the picture is sold by Seimetz’s face and eyes, twisted in confusion and longing for something she doesn’t understand. There are also a number of memorable and unusual faces in the supporting cast, including Thiago Martin as the perpetrator of Kris’ torture and Andrew Sensenig as an unusual figure tasked with picking up the pieces. Unusually, Carruth seems to want to wrap up the film nicely at the end, and this might be its biggest misstep. Such a clean conclusion isn’t entirely necessary for a film like this, and it overstays its welcome by barely five minutes. It doesn’t cheapen what comes beforehand, but seems unnecessary considering the journey up to that point.
There are very few films around at the moment with the visual beauty and aural tapestry of ‘Upstream Color’.
‘Upsteam Color’ is quite a task to take in. It’s an uncompromising vision, a science fiction film almost devoid of the trappings we traditionally associate with the genre. For less patient audiences (and there certainly were many of those at the screening I attended), it will likely be a frustrating trial, impenetrable and wantonly ambiguous. However, for those willing to be taken up by the current of a film, dive and weave beneath its surface, be swept up in it and lose their way in it, this will be one experience you won’t want to miss. Shane Carruth has crafted a deeply cinematic visual poem, and one of the most powerful love stories we’ve seen on the screen in a while. Seek out this gem of a film.