Upstream Color is the second effort from Shane Carruth, director of the time travel indie hit Primer, and I’ll be using Primer as a touchstone for most of this review. Both films involve a woven tapestry of complex ideas which require a lot of deciphering and puzzling by the audience. In Primer it was the accidental invention of time travel. In Upstream Color its a strange biological connection between a particular group of people (and pigs).
I’m not going to claim that I understood the main premise, because its clear that in Carruth’s films your not supposed to understand upon a first or even second viewing. We do know that people are getting infected and taken advantage of by special worms, and that these worms connect people to a larger biological network which also involves plants and pigs. Its a weird description, I know, but that’s what it is. How all of these elements work together is where the puzzle is.
Primer also had a puzzle involving how the time travel worked and who was in what place when. The only difference is that in Primer Carruth made me care to want to figure it out. In Upstream Color I honestly dont care how the pieces fit. Its just not intriguing enough of a mystery, and not enough threads are given to make me want to follow them. In Primer we were given a sense that he knew what he was doing, and I’m not saying that he doesn’t know in this film, but he doesn’t provide enough evidence for us to believe that he does so it ends up being moot. I simply didn’t care.
But the biggest problem with Upstream Color actually doesn’t have anything to do with the strange paranormal/science fiction elements presented or in the way those ideas are presented. Its the central relationship of the two main characters, which is a joke. And its not that they have no chemistry, they do, its that they have really, really bad chemistry. I believe that this is a fault of both the writing and the acting. Its like these two people made such a conscious effort of trying to be an atypical couple that that effort becomes extremely evident to the audience. Look at us, we’re not a usual couple! We talk over each other and get to the point instead of having full conversations, and… ugh. They make such an effort to be “different” that they dont seem like real people and certainly don’t feel like they have an emotional connection. I just ended up hating these characters.
I liked Primer a lot, and I usually like movies when I need to puzzle out and look for both plot-driven and thematic connections. But First I have to buy into it, and Upstream Color did a piss poor job of selling me. The movie has unappealing imagery, bad acting, and an underlying air of pretension which primer managed to avoid. I am no longer interested in Shane Carruth’s future projects.