Director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is the year’s best sci-fi film that nobody has seen. Yet.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, actor and musical composer. For lovers of brainy, conceptual sci-fi, it’s a real gem.
Earlier this year, Carruth’s long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, also premiered at Sundance. It was released in April to select theaters, then quietly ported to DVD and digital distribution. Upstream Color made a splash at Sundance with the critics, but outside of art house devotees and attentive film nerds, the official release barely registered.
The film’s extremely quiet, extremely slow roll-out is all part of the plan, according to Carruth. The filmmaker, never one to delegate, handled distribution himself. “The people that this is for, it will be for,” Carruth told The Los Angeles Times. “Everything about the choice to do the distribution is about contextualizing.”
Sure enough, Upstream Color is getting a second life thanks to that most reliable of grassroots distribution strategies, word-of-mouth. And that’s genuinely good news, because Upstream Color is a gorgeous and intricate film—one of the year’s best—and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker.
If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It’s like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints. Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he’s a hands-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told: Amy Seimetz plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She’s forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris’ home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau’s Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit, of sorts, on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a telepathic gestalt bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
That’s about as far as it’s fair to go, because the pleasure of Upstream Color comes from watching the film unfold like a nightmare origami. The story flips and turns, fragments and reforms again. There are connective elements, but they aren’t where we usually look for them, within the narrative. Instead, they’re woven into the film’s densely layered fabric of carefully composed images, sounds and music. If it doesn’t make literal sense, that’s entirely by design.
It’s important to note that, while Upstream Color is experimental in approach, it’s not an experimental film in the usual sense of the term. It’s a fully-rounded storytelling experience that engages the head and the heart. The love story between Kris and Jeff is quite traditional, if you overlook the Cronenbergian body trauma and the telepathic nematodes. The film is just broadcasting on different frequencies that we’re used to.
I suspect different people will find different things as they peer into Upstream Color. In the end, I was thinking about such varied ideas as the mystery of consciousness, the nature of evil, the cruelty of addiction and the psychology of the long con.
In a recent interview with Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment radio show and podcast, Carruth said that he doesn’t like to make films that can be easily reduced to synopsis. Films should go to the places that the written word, and other mediums, can’t go. Otherwise, what’s the point?
It’s useful to go into the film with these notions in mind. And in retrospect, it’s intriguing to think that Carruth’s distribution strategy is entirely consonant with the themes of Upstream Color. Like the mysterious entity in the story, the film itself is disrupting the usual life-cycle of the independent film, finding its own viewers (host organisms?) and switching up the established patterns.