I was expecting to like Upstream Color. I like cerebral sci-fi with an emotional core, I like elliptic storytelling and filmmaking, I love the film’s look and atmosphere.
Yet I came away from the film, Shane Carruth’s follow-up to his headscratcher Primer, feeling sort of aggravated. I didn’t hate Upstream Color, but seeing how critics loved it I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Carruth is a skilled craftsman, he appears to have his very own vision of what he wants to do with the medium, and that’s something I respect. However, I don’t think that Upstream Color is as smart – or as affecting – as it sets out to be, and that’s because to my mind the pieces don’t really fit together very well.
The story is weird and complicated to follow but not as complex as it might appear at first: there are these grubs that seem to allow for some sort of mental synchronisation between people. An identity thief uses these grubs to steal people’s identities and brainwash them into transferring their entire wealth to him, after which he leaves them unaware of what exactly has happened. Meanwhile, another man (called the Sampler in the film’s credits) finds the people who have been grubbed thus, extracts the parasites from the Thief’s victims and puts them in pigs, which allows them to mentally tune into the people the grubs originally came from, seeing, hearing and feeling what they are experiencing. So far, so huh. One of the Thief’s victims, a woman called Kris, loses her job and emotional stability after having been abducted and ruined by his machinations. A man named Jeff (played by Carruth himself) finds himself attracted to Kris and starts pursuing her romantically; it turns out that he’s also been grubbed and that the two of them are somehow in sync, to the extent that they cannot keep their thoughts and memories separate.
There is more that happens, involving porcine pregnancies, blue flowers and Inception-style murder, but the bulk of the film is about Kris and Jeff’s relationship. The sci-fi angle could skew this in intriguing ways, but my main problem with Upstream Color is this: the two stories (grubs, identity theft and telepathy vs. relationships, blurring boundaries and questions of identity) don’t end up working well with each other. Some ideas are either underdeveloped or appear arbitrary: why can the Thief use the grubs to program his victims, in effect hypnotising them like a cheesy silent movie villain? Yes, we see identities blur and thoughts and feelings wander from one being to the next, but that’s because the grub link has been established. The Thief’s powers seem something entirely different. Similarly, the film pulls a plot element out of thin air: Kris is suddenly revealed to be unable to have children, which her doctors attribute to cancer, though which may be due to the worms – whichever it is, the film doesn’t care to make this particularly coherent.
As viewers, we’re asked to fill in many blanks. That’s fine, but filling in the blanks should add to a better understanding or stronger engagement in the film. Instead, here it feels like busywork: plugging the gaps in a story that, at least in the form it takes on screen, is underdeveloped. Individual elements are interesting, but they pull the film into different directions, and other parts of Upstream Color seem too designed to come across as meaningful – when, to my mind, meaning isn’t something that should be signalled and symbols rarely work best when they’re overtly insisted on.
The script has potential, and Carruth is a highly skilled filmmaker. In this case, though, it feels like he was too much in love with his ideas. The Sampler and his farm of telepathic pigs could be intriguing, but it distracts from the rest of the story. When Kris ends up enacting revenge against him, although the person who ruined her life was the Thief, it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t read as dramatic irony: instead, it comes across as, again, arbitrary. Given a rewrite, Upstream Color could have been a film I like or even love – instead, I can’t help but see it as too much of a disappointing mess.
And, for a film that makes it harder for the viewer to follow than is justified by what it seems to be aiming at, it’s probably par for the course that there are no subtitle options whatsoever. I guess that deep meaning is most effectively conveyed by unsubtitled actors mumbling and muttering their dialogues.