It’s been nearly ten years since Shane Carruth’s Primer, an intriguing first-time director project with a smart spare style, a cold dispassionate edge, and hardly a performance worth remembering. But Carruth’s Upstream Color is so much more — I don’t intend this to sound as patronizing as it’s going to sound — mature than Primer. It has real emotional weight underneath the concept, where Primer was all concept.
A lot of the credit goes to the heartbreakingly expressive Amy Seimetz. Her frail intensity similarly drives a horror movie called A Horrible Way to Die. Carruth knows enough to let the movie linger on her, on her wonder, on her wounded confusion, on how she’s looking at whatever she’s looking at. The payoff is a scene in which she shifts her gaze up a few degrees. You can see it coming, you know it’s going to happen, but watching her finally fix the deep black of her gaze is a staggering moment. Literally. God Himself cannot bear to look back.
Upstream Color is rich with theme, meaning, and oblique references that might not bubble up until long after you’ve left the theater. When Moses met God on Sinai, he couldn’t look at God’s face. Upstream Color opens with a similar moment, and culminates with the aforementioned shift in gaze, but this is no mere movie about religion. In Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, the angels looked on sadly, forlornly, one of them wanting desperately to be seen. In Upstream Color, the angel is no angel, and he lives in the DNA of a worm instead of atop the Victory Column in Berlin. Upstream Color, which is like Wings of Desire in that it’s about empathy, presents identity theft as a metaphor for evolution. Or is it the other way around? It’s about the terrible price living creatures pay for empathy, or the power of memory at a cellular level (hi, Altered States!), or how consciousness is unmoored from time and space. I sound like I just dropped acid and watched 2001 for the first time with my friends, and now we’re holding forth in someone’s dorm room, convinced we’re all smarter for it. But that’s the level at which Upstream Color works, and it works wonderfully if you’re willing to meet it on those terms. I don’t mean dropping acid. But I do mean whatever your counterpart is to holding forth in someone’s dorm room. For instance, writing up a short review like this.
Too few directors take the chances Carruth has taken here. His creative vision, which goes well beyond directing into editing, music, stunning cinematography, and even how his acting creates a place for Seimetz to curl up, deserves the freedom he affords himself. This is a uniquely languid movie, and potentially confusing, and not at all neat. People who came because they saw the trailer might get up and leave and later feel right at home in Oblivion, or maybe even the pedestrian film-school anime-fan trippiness of Looper. Upstream Color, the opposite of a crowd pleaser, is what would happen if Terence Malick’s Tree of Life was a genre movie instead of his usual meditation on the meaning of life. I’m inclined to put Upstream Color in the same bio-punk category as Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral. I don’t pretend to know much science fiction beyond movies, but if young directors like Carruth, Cronenberg, Duncan Jones, and Neill Blomkamp keep doing what they’re doing with the genre, I might have to apply for a sci-fi fan card.
Upstream Color is in limited release and will be available for video on demand May 7th.