Upstream Color (2013)

After an extremely limited theatrical release, director Shane Carruth’s long awaited follow-up to Primer is now available for streaming and direct download. If you saw my review of Primer, you probably know I went into Upstream Color expecting a film that would be difficult to understand, and offer very little in the way of an actual plot.

I have to say, the film barely met even those ridiculously lowered expectations. There really isn’t enough story in Upstream Color to warrant another lengthy video review, or even a short video for that matter. Hence the brief article you’re reading now.

I’ll do my best to summarize the plot. A woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is attacked and abducted outside of a nightclub, and a worm is forced down her throat. This worm leaves her extremely susceptible to mind control, and under the orders of a man with a brightly glowing lamp for a face (no other way to explain it, my apologies), she empties out her bank account, takes out lots of bad loans, and stays in her house for days (weeks? months?) on end in a trancelike state.

Eventually, the worm is removed from her body and implanted into a pig. This apparently creates an unconscious telepathic link between Kris and the pig. But once the worm is gone, Kris is free from the mind control, only to discover that she’s lost her house, her job, and everything she holds dear.

As she struggles to rebuild her life, Kris meets and falls in love with Jeff (played by director Carruth), another broken, tormented individual who turns out to have had the same experience. As they try to piece together what really happened to them, we see the pigs die, giving rise to bright blue orchids. The orchids give rise to more mind-altering worms, and the cycle starts all over again.

Upstream Color (2013)

Full disclosure: I came up with the above synopsis only after reading articles where the director explained the plot. It appears that this time around, Carruth tried to make up for the mass confusion surrounding Primer by having Q&A sessions where he basically just told everyone what the damn thing is about.

But prior to reading these explanations, my synopsis of the film would have gone like this: Worms, synchronized taekwondo, pigs rooting around in the mud, traumatized couple looking traumatized, more pigs rooting around, Kris dredging up rocks from an indoor swimming pool [?] while reciting passages from Henry David Thoreau, more pigs, more of the couple freaking out, and finally, another line item for the TV Tropes page on Chekhov’s Gun.

Upstream Color (2013)

I really, really want to be in Shane Carruth’s corner. As a director who makes sci-fi films for adults, he’s part of a small, exclusive club these days. And you have to admire his audacity in not only self-financing these aggressively non-commercial films, but self-distributing them as well.

Primer was not a “great” film in my opinion, but it showed tons of promise. And while the visuals and special effects found in Upstream Color are leaps and bounds ahead of the grainy, murky, muffled Primer, Carruth seems to have taken a big step backwards in terms of plotting. Primer at least made sense for the first hour. Upstream Color gives off faint wisps of a story here and there, but there’s never an actual narrative for a viewer to latch onto.

Admittedly, the film held my interest all the way through, mainly due to the performances from Seimetz and Carruth as a couple struggling to pursue a dysfunctional, codependent, PTSD-laden romance. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot else going on in this film, and disappointingly, the sci-fi elements seem almost beside the point.

The film has very little dialogue, which was probably another reaction to Primer and its multiple layers of dialogue that forced most people to turn on the subtitles. As a result, we never really get inside the minds of these characters. The movie ends and I have no clue what I’m supposed to take away from it all, other than I just watched a jumble of images about the life cycle of a worm.

Here’s hoping Carruth tries for something just a bit more accessible next time. I can certainly appreciate a film that leaves its audience asking questions. But the only real question I had at the end of Upstream Color was, “why did the writer-director think this script was worth spending years of his life and thousands of dollars of his own money on?”

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  • Thomas Stockel

    I think it is a bad sign when a director has to have a web site, book or interviews to explain their work. After Earth did that and I think the same thing had to be done with some of Richard Kelly’s work. A film must be able to stand on it’s own, and while it doesn’t have to answer all questions it at least shouldn’t leave you wondering what the hell you just watched.

    Like Primer, I think I’ll give this one a pass. Thanks for the review, Doc!

  • $36060516

    Yeah, I was disappointed by the film too. It seemed bizarre that he went to all the trouble to show the life cycle of the parasitical worms as if it was all very scientific, but the main plot points relied on the farmer being able to read the minds of the worms inside the pigs which can magically see into the minds of the people they used to be inside. None of that main aspect of the story was given plausible explanation, so why bother to explain the other part.

  • Sardu

    So, does the film even work as a dream experience like David Lynch’s movies where you just let it happen and not worry about it, or is it more along the lines of pretentious assholery?

    • Like I said, the movie kept me interested. But then again, it was only about 90 minutes long. If it had been over two hours like most of David Lynch’s movies, I’m sure it would have been a much more grueling experience.

      Also, I stayed with it hoping that the story would come together in the end in a satisfactory way. Now that I know that there’s no payoff, I can’t imagine I’d be able to sit through this again.