Shane Carruth’s 2013 film Upstream Color has got ambition to spare, even in a decade of insanely ambitious films like The Tree of Life and Synecdoche, New York. Carruth aspires to understand life itself: what it means to be sentient, what it means to socialize and mate, what it means to have free will. Concepts that big can be overwhelming at first: the earliest audiences to walk out of the film were nonplussed, their minds blown by the display of big concepts that they had just seen. But the more I watch this film, the more I study it, the more I think it is by far the best film of 2013, and perhaps the most important science fiction film since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Make no mistake: this is science fiction. It’s just that science fiction has been co-opted so many times as a vehicle for other genres — Star Trek is a sci-fi Western, Alien a sci-fi horror film, The Matrix a sci-fi martial-arts picture, and so on — that putting the science first is a more and more rare thing. Carruth put the science first in his debut picture, Primer, which was mainly about the physics of time travel. In Upstream Color the science which comes first is a different one: biology.
The most important character in the film isn’t even human. In fact it’s barely seen on-screen, represented by a blue powder scraped off of the leaves of certain plants or a tiny worm which can be found in the soil of those plants. The character in question is a microscopic organism, which can be ingested via water and interacts with the human mind and nervous system in some unique ways. Explaining the plot of Upstream Color is very difficult and ultimately self-defeating, but if you remember that The Organism is as much a character as the humans in the film, it helps to make the movie clearer.
A man credited only as Thief (Thiago Martins) uses The Organism to kidnap a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz). Exposure to The Organism puts Kris in a deeply suggestible state not unlike a hypnotic trance, which makes it easy for Thief to persuade her to give him everything of value that she owns and then forget that she ever met him. Once he’s done, Thief leaves her in the hands of The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who is running an unusual experiment on The Organism and people who have been exposed to it. Meanwhile, Amy eventually recovers and enters a relationship with Jeff (Carruth), who may have been exposed to The Organism also.
That’s a lot of plot for a 96-minute movie, and I haven’t even gone into the film’s mind-bending third act. Worrying about plot details with this movie is useless, however, because if you do that then you are missing the immense philosophical issues that are raised. You see, the Sampler’s experiment is not just about individual kidnap victims, or pigs, or even studying The Organism. It’s about using The Organism to study human existence itself, right down to its most banal and seemingly irrelevant details.
The movie is full of questions that not only lack easy answers, but we as an audience wouldn’t even have been prompted to ask them if we didn’t know about The Organism affecting these characters. Consider Kris and Jeff’s romance: do they meet at random, or does The Organism bring them together? Kris and Jeff meet at the same time that two of the Sampler’s pigs, which have been exposed to The Organism, begin to mate; are the pigs drawn together because the humans are mating, or is it the other way around? Which physical response is more important: the emotional connection of love, or the physical desire to mate?
Without spoiling too much, the third act of this film begins with a tragedy that causes Kris and Jeff to respond both as animals (their fight-or-flight reflexes running wild) and as higher beings (trying to channel emotion and memory to understand what has happened to them). The sequence is amazing in how it portrays emotion: while scientifically we know that emotion is just electrochemical responses in the human brain, it feels like something bigger and different than that to the person experiencing them. Upstream Color dances gracefully between the electrochemical causes of emotion, and the way that sentient creatures actually feel.
The weak link in Upstream Color is Carruth himself, who is an acceptable actor but not much beyond that. However, even he is not too big a drag on the film, because he knows how to direct around his own limitations. The concepts in this film are so big that an actor who is trying to be equally big would cloud them, make them more confusing by distracting the audience from them. Perhaps that’s why so much of Sean Penn’s material was cut from The Tree of Life; Penn later asked, “where was the movie that I shot?” Maybe Carruth knew that putting a Penn-type in the role of Jeff would cause similar issues.
Carruth’s acting is so restrained that it would be hard to understand what Kris sees in Jeff, except that as the director he knows how to show the side of Kris that Jeff appeals to. Because Kris cannot remember Thief, she blames herself for the things he did, and Carruth turns that self-doubt is a palpable thing in every scene she is in. Kris trusts herself so little that Jeff’s attentions are appreciated; their relationship starts as a response to her neurosis, and only later becomes love. Seimetz is clearly the star of the picture, such that it is almost entirely through her mind that we perceive The Organism in what limited way we can.
And that is the brilliance of Upstream Color: it allows us to perceive life in a way that no film has ever done before. Just a simple question, like “is The Organism sentient?” could start an all-night bull session in a dorm room full of film buffs (My theory is that The Sampler’s strange music is his attempt to communicate with The Organism, in order to find out if it is sentient or not). I can’t speak for everyone who watches this movie, but trying to sort these types of questions out for myself provided a window, however small, to a new and more enlightened way of looking at the world.
Reviewed by Mark Young