Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)

Shane Carruth’s fascinating and beautiful Upstream Color is one of the stranger science fiction films of recent vintage. Concerned with rapid fire editing of vague, dreamlike images that gradually form into something of a coherent story (but only completely so after multiple viewings), it nevertheless feels confusing and open-ended in a manner bound to either enchant or annoy you. If you like, the tale it tells makes just enough intuitive sense as it washes over you, and that is very much what it feels as if it’s doing, but it’s hard to say whether the film is even meant to make absolute sense. Instead it comes to you as if a communication from an altered state and transmits its meaning to you on an unconscious, intuitive level, not even so much emotional and instinctive.

That makes it sound wonderful, and maybe it would be if it either went all the way on its own mumbled strangeness or if it attempted to suggest a stronger depth to its characters. Like a lot of films based on dreamlike brushstrokes of vague, pretty elegance, it feels underdeveloped and overly polished, like a rather superficial music video or a commercial for medication. For a film so driven on what should be a bracing surrealism, there’s something rote and cold about it all. You know the comparison that it invites and I won’t bore you or upset you by invoking it, but if you’ve ever spun around in a field pointing toward the sky and talking about God, then I’m sure you get it.

You probably don’t want me to give you my take on the “plot” of Upstream Color, especially since there are so many varied interpretations available to you after you see the movie, but here you go anyway — the film is built on a cycle that it makes a point of dramatically disintegrating. When dead piglets infect local rive water, blue orchids grow which invite the harvesting of larvae for worms used by a serial weirdo to induce hypnosis in innocent, perhaps intoxicated clubgoers who are then lured by another local psychopath to a pig farm using sounds. The people, in this case a couple who are a 90% match on OKCupid because of what Fox Mulder would call “lost time,” have episodes of sympathy with faraway pigs a la E.T. and listen to Oneohtrix Point Never in the bathtub while finding their personal histories have been melded plotting the murder of the kidnapper. Everyone then becomes book people when they’re notified by mail about what’s happened like in Eternal Sunshine and now the pigs are taken care of, and there is no more mutant larvae, and nature is victorious?

A potential commenter on this post who loves this film would likely call me out for being superficial, and it’s mabe a fair assessment. I’m quite sure Carruth (who also performs as the confused male half of the leads, alongside Amy Seimetz) had deeper things in mind than what I’ve written, and hoped for a stronger emotional response to his repeated images and complex, clearly carefully designed cues. But it’s all just a little drab and humorless for my tastes, in the sense that it takes itself seriously enough that shots like a hand caressing longingly over a rack of CDs in a music store isn’t, I don’t believe, meant to be as silly as it is.

These days it’s rare for cinematic science fiction to be genuinely original and sophisticated; speaking as someone who isn’t a fan of the genre to begin with, I can still detect a huge difference between this and the Hollywood-drub likes of Inception, Her and Looper, enough that I would argue anyone who loves great sci-fi should see this film and will probably respond to it more than I did. It would seem dishonest, however, to absolutely recommend even cautiously a film that I myself did not enjoy. Just be prepared for a movie that expects you to be completely on board with its indulgences. And okay, I will say the M-word: some affection for Malick may be required.

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