It’s been a long wait since Primer, Shane Carruth’s near-impenetrable debut, which came to be hailed as a return to the thinking man’s science fiction cinema has so long been robbed of. For those looking for another intellectual take on the genre, Upstream Color won’t disappoint. Yet whilst this emotionally driven drama likewise refuses to handhold, it wears its sci-fi premise lightly, to instead explore universal concepts of the self, and how that can be diminished or strengthened, by our interactions with others.
When graphics producer Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged outside of a nightclub one night, she unknowingly ingests a worm harvested from her attacker’s farm of exotic blue orchids, orchids whose leaves – when drank with a partner – result in total synchronicity. Duped into handing over her life savings and home equity in cash to this shadowy botanist, Kris’s sense of being is only restored through the acts of an equally obscure sound technician and pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig). Waking some time later with no memory of what has occurred, Kris struggles to reconcile with the damage caused in this missing period, until she finds herself reluctantly drawn to the similarly affected Jeff (Carruth).
If Primer played on extreme, racing logic, Upstream Color is a puzzle of emotion, rather than rationalisation – visuals and sound come frequently work to create moods that work alongside, rather than merely complement, the opaque surface narrative, and to keep up with the film’s plotline is to meet it on this emotional level, rather than constantly looking out for small, literal clues. Revelations occur quietly, cumulatively. In the film’s standout extended sequence, from which it draws its name, the process of decay quite literally blossoms into lively colour, resulting in not merely a stunning climax to Carruth’s play with macro photography, but a rare moment of clarity for both the audience and the protagonists upon which the final pieces of the puzzle – or cycle – begin to fall into place.
Indeed, beyond the initial body horror narrative, Carruth’s script continually tackles with ideas of knowledge and confusion, emotional sway and surveillance, and just how ill-conceived our sense of safety in supposed understanding can be; characters are continually forced to reassess their current reality, often with distressing consequences. The worm comes to function as a metaphor for this pain, and its transformative effect (for good and ill) on one’s consciousness.Similarly, Kris and Jeff’s relationship makes clear the need to connect to work toward this greater understanding, with both their storyline and the wider powers of the blue orchids reinforcing this notion of the gestalt. It is telling that, when Kris and Jeff make their discoveries known, the cyclical nightmare that lies at the heart of the film is allowed to be destroyed, even if they – and we – aren’t entirely aware of what is at work. Yet putting his protagonists under the petri dish in such a way also robs Carruth’s film of some of the emotion he desperately tries to convey through, often through shots that owe more than a small debt to Malick’s humanist landscapes. Frequently beautiful, Upsteam Color is also a little too cold and austere for its own good, its subdued narrative resulting in similarly muted emotions that prevent it from being the out and out classic it could be.
Yet if Upstream Color is an almost-masterpiece, that’s nothing to balk at, with its considered use of light and sound moving beyond the slick visual porn of similar works and instead giving it a textural quality the likes of which many of his peers can only dream of. It would be easy to name drop more of Carruth’s possible influences, but to do so would be a disservice to the cinema of a man who is startlingly original. If we have to wait until 2022 for his next film, it will probably be worth it.