Back in 2004, a young man named Shane Carruth created Primer, a groundbreaking science fiction film that dealt with a storage unit and time travel. The film was made for an unbelievable $7000, a thousandth the budget of most science fiction films made in Hollywood and it was a thousand times smarter, more complicated and well-staged than most science fiction films made in Hollywood. It wowed genre fans and quickly became a cult classic. Carruth’s followers waited patiently for his follow up ‘A Topiary’, and were devastated when that project fell through. The man went off radar, slipped away into oblivion and it seemed like he’d disappeared for good. It’s been nine years since Primer, Carruth is back, with a sci fi story that is even more complex, engrossing, innovative and thought provoking than his previous effort. And just like his first film, Upstream Color crushes the mainstream competition from Hollywood.
There have been plenty of movies where the filmmaker explores the post Old Monk questions of man’s free will and the musty feeling of a higher power controlling humans. Carruth makes the question ‘Are we who we think we are’ outdated by introducing an imaginative query: What if a man and a woman are drawn together because they were entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism? Wrapping your head around that plot immediately becomes a challenge as Carruth starts spinning your head right from the opening scene, inviting us to invest our grey cells into the oblique imagery on screen. This is neither a film that you can sit back and consume with a bucket of popcorn, nor is it a film that you can figure out by constantly hitting rewind. This is an intricate stream of arthouse storytelling that can be understood and appreciated only if you’re willing to go with the flow, rather than hitting pause and looking for hidden meaning and coherence in the frames.
The whole film is an array of mostly dialogue less scenes with electronic music montages, Carruth is clearly derivative of Terrence Malick’s work, where you’re required to breathe in and experience the film. Making sense of Primer was arduous given the insanely technical dialogue driven nature of the film, Upstream Color is just as labyrinthine but is more pleasurable to decode thanks to Carruth’s technical proficiency and his ability to make the narrative foggy without obfuscating the story or meandering into self-indulgence. There is no poetic voiceover or shots of foliage, Carruth is able to convey some insightful philosophy on why humans long for togetherness by sticking with his characters. The bizarre imagery, elliptical narrative and overall weirdness may turn off less patient viewers who would call it needlessly complicated, but there was no other visual or aural way Carruth could communicate the film’s ideology about love and inseparability across to the viewer. The genius of the film is in fact the way Carruth shrouds the relatively simple plot with an aesthetic layer that makes it seem like it is more byzantine than it actually is. Like a magic trick, Carruth cleverly shifts our attention by making us look at things that he wants us to see, the trick is to be able to embrace the convolution on screen rather than try to fight it.
Most importantly, Carruth doesn’t bombard the viewer with lectures on transcendence, spirituality and the human condition – the themes are all there, but are coated around the science fiction mystery thriller that the film ultimately is. There are no conventional Hollywood style cheap thrills but the astounding sound design, the soundtrack, the cinematography, the editing (all done by Carruth) exudes a higher order of filmmaking. Take Upstream Color as a thriller and you get terrorists, a conspiracy, a serial killer and bizarre insects. Take it as a love story and it’s a beautiful analogy of two people drawn together because they can relate to each other’s emotional scars. Take it as a looking glass that allows you to peer into the glorious depths of Shane Carruth’s mind, and hope that it doesn’t take him nine more years to make his next film.
(First published in DNA)