‘Upstream Color’ is an addictively engaging sci-fi masterpiece


It’s 1:30 AM. I’ve just watched Upstream Color for the first time. I am enormously perplexed and confused, yet extremely intrigued. None of my outstanding questions can be answered of my own mental volition, so I decide to do some research. I do an internet search for ‘upstream color explanation’. I find a plethora of amazing and helpful insights from people much more perceptive than myself. I decide that even though it’s very late, I need to watch the film again. This time, I don’t come out perplexed at all. I end up simply loving Shane Carruth’s brilliant cerebral exercise.

UC tells the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who gets kidnapped, drugged, and brainwashed into what at first glance seems like some sort of cult. Things escalate quickly from the occult to the bizarrely natural, as worms begin to invade Kris’ body when it is full of food after she’s been released from a forced fast. Kris remembers none of what happened after she is essentially deprogrammed. Many aspects of her life fall apart around her because of her time basically ‘off the grid’ and she even loses her job and thousands of dollars in equity because she signed them away to ‘The Thief,’ the man who kidnapped her. She later meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), a man who seems similarly beaten down by life although he can’t quite explain why, and they fall for each other. The core of their relationship is very dysfunctional, and the thoughtful, evocative tone of the film’s storytelling allows the audience to project their own relationships and experiences onto these characters without wither of them becoming dull or uninteresting. At the same time this story is happening, we’re also seeing scenes from the life of ‘The Sampler’ (a towering, mostly silent performance from Andrew Sensenig), a man whose job it is to take care of pigs and to record natural sounds and mix them into music. We don’t quite know why he’s important at first, but as Carruth’s story unfolds and the innovative concept is completely unraveled, it wouldn’t be hard to make a case that he’s essentially a Godlike figure.

The great thing about Upstream Color is that it reveals its secrets on its own time. It doesn’t feel the need to come to a thrilling climax where absolutely everything is explained in one fell swoop. It will uncover itself as you unravel it in your own mind. And while you could say that it’s a major flaw when a movie doesn’t fully bring its audience along on first viewing, UC is so interesting and has so many layers and themes to it that I imagine you would have to try hard to get bored in any way upon a second viewing. This is a fascinating film that provides its audience with an ambitious and high-IQ narrative that has the potential to plant itself in a viewer’s mind like a parasite that won’t go away.  

(Upstream Color is available on iTunes and Amazon and is now in limited release nationwide)

– George Napper

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