There have been some very good and even great films released so far this year, but Upstream Color may just be the first “must-see” movie of 2013. No matter what anyone’s interpretation of the film is going to be–and there will most certainly be more than plenty–the most important thing about Upstream Color is that it’s such an astoundingly unique and deeply personal vision.
Written, produced, directed, scored, edited, shot by, and co-starring Shane Carruth in one of the lead roles, Upstream Color is science fiction without lasers or robots. It’s a romance filled with nervous tension and harrowing psychological and biological implications. A horror film rich with astounding beauty. A thriller with no clear-cut conflicts and motivations. A drama where you’re never quite sure where the drama is coming from. Most importantly, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever really seen; built out of familiar elements, but combined they create something visionary. It makes more sense than many have stated in early reviews. It still won’t for some or most people. And yet, it doesn’t really need to make sense. It didn’t completely for me at first, and I was still transfixed with the film’s ethereal beauty; enough so that even if there was no puzzle to solve, I became so invested in what I was watching that I wanted to solve it anyway.
A plot summary is futile. Not because it’s hard to describe, far from it. In fact, taken at its most base level, Upstream Color‘s plot is relatively basic and its sci-fi concepts and conceits are reminiscent of the JJ Abrams-produced television show Fringe. But the main joys of the film are Carruth’s elliptical narrative structure and enveloping yourself in its distinct moods, sounds, and imagery until the actual plot finally comes to you in a great big “Oh, that’s what that was” moment (or not, depending on the viewer).
Instead of a plot summary, here are some things to expect out of Upstream Color, and you can make sense of them for yourself when you see the film: Parasites, orchids, swimming pools, pigs, an enigmatic sound-engineer, mysterious tattoos, possible meta-commentary, more pigs, ice water, rocks, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, blooming colors, memories, some more pigs, possible psychic links, or mind control, fragmented personalities, conspiracies, microscopic organisms of unknown origin, and there were also some pigs in case someone needed a reminder. How this all fits together on a traditional narrative level is as much your guess as it is mine, but the themes connecting these strange, disparate elements are universal.
Upstream Color is a parade of science-fiction ideas marching in unison together: Free-will, what makes us human, the effects of outside inhibitors on the mind, and more are all explored in the film’s 96 minute running time. It’s a mental workout, to be sure, but the filmmaking is so hypnotic and immersive that it’s entirely possible to get lost in the film’s world without understanding a single thing about it.
Carruth’s previous film, the shoestring-budgeted time-travel thriller Primer, didn’t have that same strength. It too went for broke on huge sci-fi ideas, but I didn’t find it quite as successful. It was too cold, more interested in its own accurate engineering terminology and in making a puzzle for the viewer to figure out instead of a truly involving experience. And while that puzzle was interesting to attempt to solve, it wasn’t quite enough to win over those who simply didn’t have the time to rewatch the film ten times and create detailed graphs and diagrams on the internet. Upstream Color avoids that problem by making the ideas just as huge, but the plot is now both more accessible in that it’s easier to understand, but at the same time it’s more elusively told.
Upstream Color is a much more abstract film than Primer ever was. Scenes skip passages of time at random, character motivations are muddled at many moments, and two seemingly unrelated scenes intercutting between each other may actually be connected. That doesn’t make Upstream Color terribly difficult to understand, but it is unconventionally structured and takes a bit of getting used to because we end up feeling just as lost and fragmented as our protagonists–both of which are rather excellently played by Carruth and Amy Seimetz.
If anything, the film that Upstream Color most resembles isn’t Primer, but actually Malick’s latest film To the Wonder. Both are extremely different films in tone and material, but both have a unique sense of flow and free-ness to their use of editing and structuring that’s easy to get lost in. The only difference is that To the Wonder contains more voice-over while Upstream Color is more about trance-inducing sound design.
Like To the Wonder, Upstream Color ends on a transcendentally beautiful note; one that inspires and leaves a lasting impression. It’s the kind of beauty that reaches out and touches your heart, and stays with you when you exit the cinema, more aware of how bright the sun is shining and how calm the breeze is. No amount of concentrated analysis can really explain that level of deep emotion that Upstream Color effortlessly evokes. That it also contains food for thought is a remarkable achievement.
I can’t promise that Upstream Color is for everyone, but it’s burrowed its way into my head like a parasitic worm; lingering there in ways that few films are able to accomplish. And I find myself thinking about those piggies long after the experience is over. Thinking and feeling. Like they and the film are now embedded in my mind. Like they’re now, in some way, a part of me.