Shane Carruth’s debut film Primer offered audiences an experience as intoxicating as it was baffling. Made for almost no money at all, the film told of a pair of nerds who invented time travel as a means of gaming the stock market. Equal parts meditation on greed and deconstruction of the idea of time travel, the film’s simple narrative soon blossomed into a forest of sub-plots so dense that it only really began to make sense with the help of an elaborate map. Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up Upstream Colour finds him returning to the science fiction genre but while both films may offer a similar combination of amazement and frustration, Carruth has chosen to deliver that experience in an entirely new way.
The film opens on a teenager who has discovered that dropping a certain type of worm in your drink allows you to share your thoughts with other people. Fast forward a number of years and this teenager has grown into a thief (Thiago Martins) who forces people to ingest the worm and then clears out their bank accounts while they are in a psychically vulnerable state. Once the victims have been picked clean an expert in sampling technology (Andrew Sensenig) uses sound waves to attract the victims, transplants their worms into a live pig, and then abandons them to their own fates while using the pigs as a means of checking in on their lives. Carruth tells us about this peculiar sub-culture by showing us the experience of a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz).
Incapable of remembering what it is that happened to her, Kris assumes that she had a psychotic episode and so steels herself for a life of heavy medication and light professional responsibility. However, this life begins to change when she meets a man with whom she has an extraordinary and inexplicable connection. Initially quite evasive about his past, Jeff (played by Carruth) eventually admits that his experiences are almost identical to those of Kris and the ensuing fear and psychic trauma have pushed him out of society and into a weird demi-monde of cash payments and hotel dinners. The more time the pair spend together, the more open they become about their past and the more they begin to confuse where one person’s memories end and another’s begin. Clearly, their connection is not just imagined… something is happening here.
The middle section of Upstream Color is somewhat underwhelming to say the least as while Carruth does an excellent job of capturing what it’s like when fragile, broken people let their guards down and find love, it’s disappointing to see all of that exquisitely weird science fictional creativity being poured into what seems to be little more than a standard bourgeois relationship drama. Did we really need another film about love as a balm for universal alienation? Did we really need another genre movie that treats empathy and basic human understanding as a bizarre alien superpower? Mercifully, the film’s final act does go some way to realise the thematic potential of its weird mind-control technology but the way that Carruth chose to tell his story means that this was always going to be something of an uphill struggle.
Upstream Color functions very much like a contemporary art film. As in Jose Luis Guerlin’s haunting In the City of Sylvia and Mao Mao’s beautiful but decidedly misogynistic Here, Then, Carruth elects to minimise the use of dialogue in order to let the visuals and sound-design tell his story. What this means in practice is that while the film does contain dialogue, this dialogue is only ever used to convey the characters’ feelings and memories. Rather than having the characters explicitly tell you what is going on, Carruth bombards you with ambiguous images and invites you to put the story together for yourself. Carruth’s use of art house techniques results not only in an intensely beautiful film but also a film with an incredibly strong and well-realised central relationship. Indeed, the story of Kris and Jeff is a story of isolated alienation being melted by the flames of love and this is precisely the kind of story that art house cinematic techniques were designed to tell. The problem is that while using art house techniques to tell human stories is a very mature process, using art house techniques to tell high-concept science fiction stories is rather more experimental.
Aware that his genre tropes can probably handle a lot more than a simple relationship story, Carruth devotes the final act to pushing the limits of his metaphorical infrastructure and so we are treated to an absolutely beautiful sequence in which the life-cycle of the worms is revealed and a further sequence in which Jeff and Kris confront their shared trauma and tentatively begin edging towards a less isolated way of living. Carruth handles both of these expansions quite well but the combination of oblique storytelling techniques and limited space means that much of their thematic and dramatic potential must remain untapped. Indeed, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life spends over two hours wrestling with ideas far less substantial than the ones that Carruth rushes through in less than ten minutes! The sense of wasted potential is immense! Upstream Colour could have been a dozen hours long and still only skimmed the surface of a metaphorical ocean as deep as the human condition is twisted.