Tag Archives: shane carruth

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.


Primer – Review

13 Mar

When I think of time travel stories that push the realms of science fiction farther than what may seem possible, I think of movies like The Time Machine and the Back to the Future movies. Mainly, I think of Doctor Who, because that may be the most innovative and groundbreaking piece of work to ever deal with the concept. Never would I have thought of Primer, a super low budget time travel movie that shows how much you can do with some money and a great idea. With its technical jargon, mind bending story, and characters out for their best interests, Primer plays out like some sort of strange Shakespearean science journal.


Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are engineers hoping for any sort of major discovery to come their way. Operating out of Aaron’s garage, the two are working on a machine that can reduce the weight of an object, but to their surprise they accidentally invent time travel. This invention opens up a world of possibilities for the two engineers, and they decide to use this new found discovery to travel back through time and use their knowledge of the future to make big money on the stock market. With a set of rules in place to make sure they don’t severely mess up the space/time continuum, everything seems to be working until the two friends begin working behind each other’s back and changing events to their own desires.

This is one of the most difficult movies that I’ve ever sat through, and despite it just being a little over a hour, it felt like a much longer movie. The beginning of the movie really takes no prisoners in terms of scientific and mathematical dialogue. Carruth, the writer/director/star of the movie, stated that he didn’t want to dumb any of the dialogue down for audiences. I can really respect that, especially in a time where filmmakers really want to cater to their audiences. The fact that Carruth can write in such a way may be due to his degrees in mathematics and engineering. The dialogue may be hard to understand, but it sure is cool to listen to.


What actually makes Primer so cool is how low budget it is (it was only made for $7,000, and most of that money went to buying film stock). Everything about it feels low budget, and I’m not just talking about the aesthetics of the movie. Even the whole time travel machine feels like it could’ve been made in someone’s garage, and it was. There’s no cool sound effects or flashiness that helps a lot of time travel films and shows. This one is completely an idea. We know how the machine works (sort of) and we believe science will happen without special effects telling us. Don’t get me wrong, flashy science fiction is awesome, but for  Primer it is completely unnecessary.

This movie is a sci-fi film that’s heavy on the science, but seems pretty light on the fiction. Yes, of course, time travel is not possible, and scientists say it will never be possible. It’s set up in a way in this movie that it seems like this would be the most possible it would ever be. This is what crude time travel would look like. The whole science behind it is mind boggling, and once the two engineers begin going behind each other’s backs with the machine, the plot becomes almost impossible to follow. This was intentional, however, and trying to piece together everything that’s happening and make sense of it is part of what makes this movie so much fun.

Primer is not a movie for everyone. I feel like the way the plot twists and turns completely out of the space/time continuum without explanation is so unapologetically mind boggling, that people would lose interest. You have to know what kind of movie you’re going into see, and it’s one that doesn’t dumb down it’s theory or dialogue for the audience, nor does it take the time to completely explain everything. If you want a movie that’s going to make you think pretty hard for a couple of days in order to even remotely understand what actually happened, Primer is the low budget masterpiece you’re looking for.