Four Comments on Upstream Color

It's been a week since I watched Shane Carruth's second film Upstream Color, and since then I've been trying to work out not what I want to say about it, but whether I wanted to say anything at all.  Which is not to say that I didn't like the film--I found it rich and moving, and incredibly exciting for the growth it shows in Carruth's abilities and interests as a filmmaker, and an SF filmmaker in particular.  But Upstream Color is also a film that seems to demand not a review, but a dissection.  To write about it, I would have to explain what the film means.  There have been some great reviews along these lines--in particular, I found much to think about in Caleb Crain's review in the New Yorker, and Nicholas Rombe's review in the Los Angeles Review of Books--but I don't really want to try to add to them (and I'm not sure that I could if I wanted to).  The meaning of Upstream Color feels bound up in the lovely and sometimes disquieting experience of watching it.  Perhaps if I were a better reviewer I could capture that experience in words, but instead I think I'll just recommend that you watch the film.  The following, then, is not a review so much as a collection of thoughts, in no particular order and with nor particular theme.
  • Perhaps the first coherent thought I formed about the film when the credits rolled was "why, that was practically self-explanatory!" so it was a bit of a shock to look up its reviews when I got home and find so many of them calling Upstream Color opaque in the same vein as Primer.  While it's true that there are huge, lingering questions left behind by the film, these are of such a completely different nature than the ones raised by Primer that the two films feel almost like opposites.  Carruth's first film leaves you wondering what happened (and having to resort to complicated timelines in order to make sense of it).  His second film is, on the whole, rather clear on this point--barring a few fuzzy points and what I suspect are probably plot holes, its story is fairly linear and not very difficult to follow--and what it leaves you wondering is what it all means.  This is reflected in the different types of stories Carruth tells with the two films.  Primer is, when it comes down to it, a character sketch of two money- and status-obsessed, emotionally deadened technology workers who don't really know what they want from their lives except that it's not what they've got.  Upstream Color is a philosophical treatise, one that even Carruth himself has struggled to explain but which touches on the alienation of modern life and the (possibly dangerous and dehumanizing) allure of a return to nature.

    What I find interesting about all of this is how the two films use--or don't use--dialogue to achieve their different affects in a way that is the precise opposite of what we might expect.  The reason that Upstream Color might appear, at first, to be as opaque as Primer is that it doesn't employ many of the devices with which most films explain their plot to the audience.  The connective tissue between many scenes is missing, and there is never the kind of dialogue we're used to in movies (science fiction movies in particular) in which the plot is explained to us through the characters.  In fact, dialogue of all sorts is in short supply in Upstream Color, so much so that its characters stop speaking entirely twenty minutes before it ends, while its affect is achieved through its overpowering score and sound effects (the importance of sound in the film reaffirms my belief that we're in desperate need of popular criticism that speaks about the technical aspects of filmmaking more than about plot and character; I don't think it's possible to say anything meaningful about Upstream Color without discussing its soundtrack).  This is, of course, in stark contrast to Primer, a film that is almost overburdened with language, whose characters frantically, obsessively explain their world to themselves and each other, interrupting one another in their impatient need to be the one to speak (since first watching the film, I've gone to work in the technology industry, and I can now confirm that that is actually how engineers talk).

    But of course, it's Primer that is difficult to follow, which is at least in part because that glut of dialogue, with its technical terms and missing logical leaps (in my review of the film I quoted John Clute, in a review of a different work, who describes this kind of dialogue as "a deincentivizing fug of unverb"), overwhelms the audience, who have to puzzle out meaning from that deluge of information.  In Upstream Color, on the other hand, dialogue is beside the point, which the film drives home through the fact that nearly every time that a character seeks to explain the world to themselves or each other, they're either lying or mistaken.  When the Thief tries to get hold of the enthralled Kris's money, he doesn't issue commands, but tells her things about the world that aren't true, but which she, in her suggestible state, believes--that his face is as bright as the sun, that her mother has been kidnapped, that the water he's given her is delicious and sustaining.  Kris and Jeff tell each other stories about why their lives are in shambles--she's mentally ill, he's a drug addict--that the audience knows aren't true.  When Kris goes to the hospital, her doctors patiently explain to her that she's survived a cancer that we know never existed.  The only time the characters gain insight through speech is when what they're saying isn't rational--when Kris and Jeff quote Walden to one another, and finally prove the connection they've both sensed but have been unable to articulate--because it is so far outside the realm of rationality, where a story like Primer takes place.

  • It's impossible not to say something about the fact that Upstream Color is a film that begins with a rape.  I can't be the only person who watched the film's first act, in which the Thief gains control of Kris, holds her in her own house, and compels her to give him all her money, with extreme discomfort, anticipating with dread the moment when he would make her have sex with him.  Even though that doesn't happen, the completeness of Kris's violation, the thoroughness with which she is unmade, is brutal to watch (I was stunned, the second time I watched the film, by how short this sequence turned out to be; I was so uncomfortable watching it the first time around that it seemed endless).  Carruth himself seems to deliberately be evoking rape in this scene--the Thief finds and drugs Kris in a club, where women are often warned to be on the lookout for date-rape drugs; when Kris returns to herself after the worm is removed from her body her first act is to examine herself physically for signs of rape; her obsessive cleaning, of her house and her body, after her ordeal is a frequently described reaction to rape.  But of course, Kris isn't the only character in the film to be victimized by the Thief, and the difference in the way that the film depicts her violation and its aftermath, and Jeff's, is heavily gendered.

    Even after she's regained (some diminished form of) control of her life, Kris continues to be acted upon.  Her relationship with Jeff consists almost entirely of him acting and her reacting--or rather, resisting and then being won over.  He calls her, and then chastises her for not taking his calls.  He initiates their first sexual encounter, overcoming her initial reticence.  Most blatantly, after Kris has a health scare, Jeff proposes marriage, and then immediately announces "I'm married to you right now ... I'm marrying you, do you understand?" as if marriage were something that can be done to someone.  The depth of Jeff and Kris's feelings for one another is never in doubt (though given other aspects of the story there is some doubt over where those feelings come from), and despite her passivity during the process of getting their relationship off the ground Kris is an active participant in the relationship once it happens.  But whereas the person Kris was before the Thief attacked her was self-contained and in control of herself, after her ordeal she becomes someone with seemingly no protective boundaries, and that, combined with the shape of the story and relationship she's in, forces her into some heavily gendered roles.  She is the mad wife.  She is emotional and irrational.  She is someone for Jeff to take care of, to humor in her flights of fancy, and to enable.  She is a woman who has to be told--despite her objections to the contrary, which are not heeded--what's going on inside her own body. 

    Of course, all of this is a lie.  Jeff is just as damaged, just as undone, by his ordeal as Kris is, and the only difference between them is that he hides his damage beneath a mask of normalcy that also reaffirms his masculinity.  Kris tells people that she is, as she believes, mentally ill, and wears her dysfunction on her sleeve.  Jeff admits to the more socially acceptable (and certainly less emasculating) flaw of drug addiction, but lies about other things--he lets Kris believe that he has a respectable, high-powered profession when really he's a disgraced lackey--and conceals the same compulsive behavior that she engages in openly, staying up late at night to weave chains from straw wrappers.  Even when Kris and Jeff experience the same irrational, inexplicable things--the trauma of losing "their" piglets--they react in different ways that correspond to stereotypes of gendered behavior; Kris lashes out at herself, slamming her fist into a pane of glass, while Jeff turns his violence outwards, attacking his coworkers and chopping down a tree.  Aside from that moment, all of Jeff's behavior is geared towards playing the accommodating, caretaking, sane husband, but he can only maintain that facade by refusing to acknowledge what's happened to him--even when it becomes undeniable, as when he uses his connection with Kris to compel her to call him and direct her to him.  Eventually, that pretense becomes untenable.  When Kris hears a noise coming from under the house (really the result of her lingering psychic bond with the worm that grew in her and the pig it now resides in), Jeff initially tries to play the reasonable, accommodating husband humoring his wife's increasingly hysterical delusions.  But finally, he's forced to admit that he hears the noise too.

    Ultimately, Kris's willingness to openly acknowledge how her experience has changed her makes her stronger than Jeff.  When Jeff announces that he's married her, you can see that he thinks this will make everything better, but all Kris can think about is finding out what's been done to her.  She keeps insisting that she wants to go somewhere, and finally Jeff pauses, realizing what marriage to Kris actually means, and then goes along with it.  For the rest of the film it's Kris who directs their journey, even if Jeff pretends that it isn't one, and for that reason it is Kris who is able to find the Sampler and his farm.  But then, something unexpected happens.  After Kris and Jeff find the farm and contact the other Sampled, Jeff disappears.  He isn't seen again after the scene in which Kris is reunited with "her" pig.  Her joy at learning that the pig is pregnant, and the final scene in which she holds the baby piglet, feature Kris alone.  In its middle segments Upstream Color feels like a romance, and the love story between Kris and Jeff is what powers its plot.  But the final scenes suggest that perhaps the love story was never what this film was about.

  • Something else that surprised me during my post-viewing reading was Carruth's statements that he views the Sampler, who retrieves the worms from Kris and Jeff after they're released by the Thief, as an ambiguous figure, and his murder at Kris's hand as an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.  Carruth's argument is that the Sampler isn't responsible for what happens to Kris and Jeff since he isn't in league with the Thief (I'm not sure this makes sense--it would require the Sampler to have just happened to set up his lure for worm-infested individuals somewhere close enough to Kris's house that no one would have noticed a half-naked, bleeding woman wandering the streets; but then, as several reviewers have noted, Upstream Color takes place in a strangely empty world, in which many of the bonds of human connection have fallen away, or otherwise the Thief probably would not have been able to hold his victims for so long and take their money without anyone noticing).  Even if I accept this argument, however, it still seems to me that the Sampler is guilty of a terrible indifference.  He makes no effort to explain to the Thief's victims what has happened to them, and leaves them to the agony of not knowing, and the stigma of mental illness or drug addiction.  And then, despite the fact that these people have already been violated in almost every way imaginable, he invades their privacy and uses what he sees as fodder for his art.   Even the word for what he does--sampling--implies that the Sampler isn't aware of these people's humanity.  That to him they are just livestock.

    Whether or not you think this indifference justifies the Sampler's death, it is what ends up killing him.  If the Sampler had thought of Kris and Jeff as human beings, capable of reason and independent action, he probably would have lived.  If he had explained to Kris his role in what happened to her, she wouldn't have jumped to the--entirely reasonable--conclusion that he and the Thief were the same person when she found him.  And if he'd ever considered the possibility that there might be feedback from the pigs back to the Sampled, and that as a result the human beings at the other end might be able to figure out who and where he is (and might experience distress as a result of his treatment of the pigs), he wouldn't have been caught off guard by Kris doing just that.  What's interesting about this is that the Sampler represents the highest ideal of Thoreauvian return to nature and isolation from human society (he also, as several reviews have noted, represents the filmmaker, with his work as a soundman mirroring the film's reliance on sound).  And yet it is precisely that detachment that gets him killed, and allows his "livestock" to take over his operation.  In a film that, at points, seems to treat Walden like a blueprint for living, this is perhaps the most profound note of ambivalence towards that philosophy, suggesting that the only way to get in touch with nature is to lose your humanity, and that to do so leaves you vulnerable to other humans.

  • Trying to find a way to sum up the unique, remarkable flavor that Carruth brings to his SF filmmaking, the word I keep landing on is "novelistic," which may require a bit of unpacking.  Most SF films, whether they're action movies with an SFnal gloss or a more thoughtful effort, approach SFnal tropes as a metaphor--in this summer's Elysium, for example, the separation between the 22nd century poor living on Earth and the super-rich living on the titular space station reflects real-world divisions between the rich and the poor.  The few films that treat their SFnal worldbuilding as something real in its own right tend not to do much with it--Moon, for example, excellent as it is, has a thin story that does little with its SFnal premise except use it as a jumping-off point.  They're the equivalent of short stories.  The reason for this thinness is that most SF films keep one foot firmly planted in the familiar, for fear of alienating their audiences.  They're capable of imagining the future as bad--and usually end by restoring the status quo familiar to the viewing audience--but they can't imagine an SFnal world that is simply different.  When I call Carruth's films novelistic what I mean is that he develops his SFnal ideas, and uses those ideas to fuel his stories and develop his characters, with a depth that I'm more accustomed to seeing in novels.  He does so by not being afraid of imagining a world transformed, irrevocably but not necessarily for the worst, by the SFnal novum he's introduced into it.

    Both Primer and Upstream Color start off from a fairly simple, metaphorical concept.  The time travel in Primer, which the heroes use to make a killing in day-trading, can be seen as a metaphor for the bland sameness of their everyday lives.  The bond that forms between Kris and Jeff could be a thoroughly mundane one, an obsessive, not entirely healthy romance between two troubled people, who both support each other and enable each other's delusions.  But the hallmark of a good SF novel, to me, is that it can't be contained by this metaphorical reading, and neither can Carruth's films.  As ridiculous as the basic concept of a psychic bond with pigs is, Upstream Color takes it seriously and develops its implications.  More importantly, it isn't driven, as most SF films with such a concept would be, by Kris and Jeff's investigation of what's happened to them.  Instead, the film is perfectly happy to posit that its characters are somehow no longer entirely human, and to end without resolving (or rather, without solving) that situation--just as Primer ends with the suggestion that one of its duplicate time travelers is about to let the dangerous, unpredictable technology discovered by the film's protagonists out into the world.  The result is a rich fantasy world that feels satisfying and compelling even if you can't work out what it all means.  Of all the many things that make Carruth special as a creator, this is the one that should make him important and vital to fans of science fiction, and to those who hope to see the genre's full complexity and potential on screen.


Unknown said…
Hi Abigail. Longtime admirer of your writing. I might have to split this into two comments because of length.

I came to Upstream Color intent on disliking it, having hated Primer, yet couldn't help myself from admiring Carruth's growth between the two projects. While I don't disagree with much of your praise, I feel the film and Carruth deserve more criticism, especially if Carruth thought we would (or even could) understand the Sampler's murder as a case of mistaken identity, & that character as "not necessarily harmful." When I first saw the film, I thought the Sampler had actually commissioned the Thief to plant the worms in Kris & the other victims, thereby allowing him to capture them, & that their own life savings comprised the payment. That Carruth hopes his viewers come away thinking otherwise indicates a frightening divergence in interpretation, the possible spread of which most writers -- even those who enjoy fostering ambiguity -- try to account for & to steer. The sheer fact that these two contradictory readings are possible (though I'd argue his is far less apparent) says to me that he failed in this particular regard. And that Carruth thinks we can assess the film without viewing the sampler as a pretty vicious and controlling guy outright disturbs me. Inquisitive and yearning for some kind of clarity? Sure. "Not necessarily harmful?" No way. Of course, you've already noted this.

What also disturbed me about Upstream Color was how race and gender seemed to come out of it. The characters we see manufacturing, experimenting with, & then deploying the worm-derived drug in the first act -- even the kids -- are all people of color, while the two victims we follow are white. It's telling, now, to read Carruth arguing for a more sympathetic approach to the Sampler, who's also white. Even putting that aside -- since there's so little runtime depicting the drug's creators, handlers, etc. (though, to me, that's no excuse) -- I don't think Kris comes off as 'in control' as you've argued. I was shocked that we were expected to follow Jeff sympathetically when his pursuit of Kris, including that statement "we're married," echoed so blatantly her earlier life-rape. & I was just as disturbed by the scene of Jeff experimenting with Kris at the pool -- throwing rocks in & reading Walden & such -- as I had been during any of the Sampler's experiments.
Unknown said…
Up until Kris tracks down and kills the Sampler, I saw her as being manipulated the whole way -- by the Thief, the implanted worms, the Sampler, & then Jeff -- with her only form of expression as a character being a kind of hysteria we know better about, but which Jeff seemed to dismiss -- & this is just a hair's breadth short of being directly-stated by him -- as female emotionality. As you say, the film -- after robbing her of her free will -- forces Kris into some heavily gendered roles & expressions of herself, which we, unlike Jeff, know the source of. However -- & this is crucial -- I think the film doesn't depict Jeff as being as damaged as her. The fact that he can do what he does at the pool while she's reduced to a dowsing rod -- a kind of medium, if you will -- solidified that for me.

I like your reading of Kris's trajectory better than mine, because I *want* it to be true. Yet I can't help feeling like she, even more than Jeff -- who consciously comes up with an experiment to test what's happening to them, while Kris seems driven by an almost hallucinatory intuition -- perpetually acts "in a fugue state," as stated by Carruth. I kept wanting a version of UC in which Jeff never entered, one that follows Kris as she hunts for the answers to her predicament; or at least one that puts her more in the center-stage. Given that UC is so concerned with synchronicity, I know that's a lot to ask for, which makes me think that UC might have worked better as two films: one about the mind-control aspect of the drug that allowed the Thief to do what he did; and the other about the synchronicity that the worms beget, which would arguably be the more interesting one. The plant/worm/drug Macguffin does one too many things, which overly complicates the film. Is its effect outright mind control? Or is it that one-to-one synchronicity we saw the kids demonstrating at the beginning? Which effect on Kris are we really following here (emotionally as much as narratively)?

All that being said, I think Carruth's decision to present a more visual (& sonic) narrative than Primer was a bold one. There aren't enough movies willing to do that. There are lots of interesting ideas at play here, even though Carruth's backpedaling from his own bludgeoning use of Walden, in a movie that makes its viewers grasp for any & all possible ways to interpret it, made me facepalm on his behalf. Carruth is excellent as a premise-driven SF writer, & Upstream Color, because it's more concerned with its characters and their emotions, I think, far outstrips the cold, obfuscatory geek-bait that Primer seemed to be.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

that Carruth thinks we can assess the film without viewing the sampler as a pretty vicious and controlling guy outright disturbs me

The impression I got from Carruth's interviews was that the Thief, the Sampler, and the mother-daughter orchid gatherers are less important to him as people than as enablers of the worm, steps in its lifecycle (to which end it's crucial that the Thief and the Sampler not be aware of each other). That doesn't entirely work, of course, both because that lifecycle makes no sense from a biological standpoint, and because unlike the Thief and the orchid gatherers, the Sampler is too important a presence in the movie. But what I think Carruth means when he calls the Sampler ambiguous is that he is merely a link in a chain, doing his part in a biological process. This is, however, to ignore how much the things that he does of his own volition are, in themselves, a violation.

Your observation that the negative characters in the film are all people of color is spot on (though I didn't think the boys who help the Thief were entirely negative - there's no sense that they realize what he's doing; they are, however, tainted by their association with him). As you say, it certainly paints Carruth's sympathetic take on the white Sampler in a troubling light.

I was just as disturbed by the scene of Jeff experimenting with Kris at the pool

Hmm. I took that as a joint experiment, the two of them finally proving to one another their connection. I thought the scene before the experiment, in which Kris finds a copy of Walden in a bookstore, suggested that she is aware of what happened before at the pool and that she and Jeff deliberately set up the second experiment together. That said, Carruth's comments about Kris going into a "fugue state" certainly support your reading (though I'm not sure that the determination with which she follows and kills the Sampler does).
Unknown said…
I don't pay much attention to popular culture and saw this movie by accident. I thought it was quite interesting so I went online to see what others had to say about it. It was then that I realized that I had seen an entirely different movie than everyone else. I listened to a few interviews with Carruth and am certain that I watched the version of the movie that Carruth wanted people to see, whereas everyone that has every written about it has either shot the moon entirely or approached within a ghost's whisper of his original intent only to tread off into another dimension.

Much of this is Carruth's own fault. He intend for the film to have a secret context--albiet one that is hidden in plain sight--and tends to resort to tricks within tricks. He is very clever and a master of the double entendre. Viewers misunderstood this movie--that's harsh, they didn't misunderstand it as much as only saw half of it--because each time he applied one of his tricks, misdirecting the audience as he bifurcated the context, he also dropped a major hint.

Watch it again this weekend. Sell yourself on the idea that it is hard sci-fi, straight forward and as spoonfed as Ender's Game or Speaker For The Dead. This isn't a new kind of science fiction, rather it is a quasi-crystalline distillate of themes along the bleeding edge of science fiction. Perhaps I am just selfish, but I don't think that this movie is open to the virtual pantheon of interpretations it has received--there really is only one major skein of interpretation (trivial offshoots, sure) and I have deciphered it.

I didn't mean to give so much away. I feel that I have put it on the spoon for you. Carruth has said that he wants people to arrive at the conclusion for themselves, which is why I haven't written up an explanation with charts, graphs, timestamps, and other modern annotations even though to do so would be too compelling. I only spent a minute checking your bone fides; you clearly have the sci-fi chops to follow the breadcrumbs encumbering my prose. I left a much more conspicuous trail than originally intended. It really is the journey that is important--Carruth's wishes and all--and I don't want to give the movie away to anyone, killing the magic and accomplishment of discovery as a result.

If you need more direction or want to compare notes, I can be reached at

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