Upstream Color – Review

27 Mar

Shane Carruth struck gold with his 2004 indie hit Primer. This was an incredibly original and intelligent science fiction film that touched on the topic of time travel in a way that I never saw before. After years of not making another film, Carruth launched himself back on the indie film scene with another head trip in 2013, Upstream Color. Take everything you knew about Primer and forget all about it. Upstream Color is a genre all its own, and despite a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment, Carruth’s own pretensions get in the way of what could’ve been a huge step up.


Kris (Amy Seimetz) is successful and hard working, but all of that goes out the window when she is tasered in a nightclub by the Thief (Thiago Martins). The Thief infects her body with a sort of round worm which causes her to go into a deep hypnotic state, and forces her into liquidating her equity and signing all of her money over to him. After the worms are taken out of her and transferred to pigs by the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), she awakens with no memory of what just happened to her. Kris soon meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), a businessman who seems to have some of the same odd experiences that Kris has had, but no memory. Together, as they draw closer together in their relationship, they begin to piece together what happened them, but also try to fix whatever they can of their lives.

Upstream Color has a really awesome and complicated plot that obviously has a lot of imagination and intelligence put into it. It’s been established already that Carruth is brilliant. This film shows his intelligence yet again, but it seems like Carruth wants to prove to the world just how smart he really is. It gets to the point in the plot that too much is trying to be fit into one movie and there are plot elements that are established and then forgotten about. Whereas Primer has a very well thought out and deliberately complicated plot, Upstream Color starts really interesting and unique, but it loses steam as the plot goes on and Carruth’s head gets bigger. I do have to give Carruth credit, though, for constructing a plot as unusual as this and using as little dialogue as possible to actually tell the story. Upstream Color is a very quiet movie.



Something this film never loses track of is beautiful cinematography which is kept at a constant the entire time. The film is shot crisply on digital and that really is the only way it could’ve been shot. The almost synthetic perfection of the digital images works really well with the story and works to either create an eerie atmosphere or one of complete beauty. There are also some excellent macro cinematography of the round worms crawling through a person’s body or the microorganisms escaping from a pig and into orchids, the latter implementing a creative use of the color blue.

I think I know what this movie was trying to say. The strongest theme that I could see coming from the plot is the overcoming of an addiction, whatever that may be. In Upstream Color, the characters don’t remember the traumatic event that happened to them, but they still behave in a way where they need each other’s help to rebuild their lives because of a foreign invader that chemically changed their bodies. This is one of the most fun parts of this movie, trying to figure out what all of the imagery and allegories mean. It really does demand a second viewing with a mind that already knows what it’s getting itself into.

Upstream Color is sort of a mixed bag for me. I really loved the story and the execution of said story with as little dialogue as possible. It’s also beautifully shot on digital to the point where it’s hard to look away. Unfortunately, Carruth knew that he was making a good movie and it seemed to have gotten to his head in a way that Primer never did. Unfortunately, these pretensions make Upstream Color lose itself a bit towards the middle of the movie, bogging itself down in unnecessary images and plot points that are never again explored. Still, this movie is just interesting enough to try, and even if you don’t like it, you’d still have a strange movie to talk about with your friends.

5 Responses to “Upstream Color – Review”

  1. Joachim Boaz March 27, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    “Carruth’s own pretensions” — I actually didn’t find that this was the case… I found the entire work was unified by its poetic vision. Yes, a poetry can have extensive wordplay and wit so did Carruth’s delivery of his unorthodox narrative. So, a visual SF mood poem in the vein of Chris Marker’s brilliant La Jetée…

    • myworldvsthemovies March 27, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

      As much as I respect Carruth as an artist and understand the abstractness of the conflict as opposed to the more concrete “Primer,” I still found that Carruth wanted to do more than he could with the story, and the end result is the movie losing steam about half way through. Sure, it is beautiful and poetic, but he went a little overboard. “La Jetée” works because Marker knew exactly what he wanted and never made it feel bloated with unnecessary points.

      • Joachim Boaz March 28, 2014 at 3:41 am #

        So, what was “unnecessary”? You don’t really make it clear.

  2. myworldvsthemovies March 28, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    The main things that bothered me was the plot point involving the two characters mixing up each other’s memories and their scenes of breaking down when the pigs are thrown off the bridge. Cool scenes in their own rights but it slowed the movie down and was never touched on again.

  3. myworldvsthemovies March 28, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    Good movie with great moments and design, but it just didn’t sit with me as well as his previous work.

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