*Contains spoilers, so best read after seeing the film*
We’ve been waiting a long time for Shane Carruth to deliver a follow up to Primer, which astounded Sundance a decade ago as a textbook example of the heights that be achieved with a scant budget but a surfeit of imagination and intelligence.
Primer was so extraordinary because it almost existed outside of film entertainment (or genre) as a new type of moving-image format – the ‘film-as-puzzle’. By that I mean it was distinct from mere ‘puzzling films’ such as Last Year at Marienbad, Mulholland Dr. and Inception in that it’s virtually impossible to completely comprehend Primer’s plot just by consuming it in the traditional, relatively passive sense. Drawings, diagrams and a dose of head scratching were the minimum requirement to unravel its narrative, and the film inspired an explosion of online flow-charts competing to explain its numerous timelines. It may as well have been sold in toyshops alongside Mensa-approved board puzzles like Eternity II.
Upstream Color isn’t quite such a departure from the norms of entertainment media, but neither is it mainstream cinema, and its deliberately elusive and elliptical style will alienate some viewers and entrance others. Certainly it’s a leap forward cinematically from its constrained predecessor. Where Primer’s mise-en-scene was as (suitably) flat-pack and lo-fi as its scientists’ homemade time machine, Upstream Color is expansive, immersive and gloriously sensorial. Carruth revels in images of natural splendor and biological enigma, all bathed in the enveloping uterine warmth of his sumptuously overwhelming electronic score.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth himself) are two lost souls who are drawn to each other on the daily commute. Both believing themselves to be recovering from the everyday wounds of past relationships, substance abuse and depression, they take succor in their damaged kinship. But in fact they’re harbouring much darker and abnormal pasts; secret histories unknown even to themselves – they were both once mysteriously apprehended and hypnotically coerced into giving away all their money. Much like the lovers of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who also meet on a train, Kris and Jeff later discover they share memories and pasts, their own sense of personal identity evaporating into an intertwined communal fog.
A third character is the even more mysterious Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who converts natural sound recordings into industrial-sounding electronic noises and broadcasts them as a siren call to lure the scam’s victims to his mobile laboratory, where he proceeds to extract the hypnosis-causing parasites, transplanting them into a community of pigs who vicariously experience the freedom and determination now denied to their human counterparts.
Initially we get the impression the Sampler might be Kris and the victims’ savior, an adversary to the anonymous Thief who uses the parasite for his own advantage. But in a chilling twist the Sampler is later shown playing a key role in continuing the life cycle of the parasite, a creature which exceeds even HR Giger’s Alien xenomorph for its bizarrely imaginative reproductive biology. In one of the film’s many satisfying ambiguities, it’s never entirely clear if the Sampler is playing his role unwittingly or if he’s a sentient component of the mysterious conspiracy.
If the film is mysterious, Carruth gives a pointer to his intended interpretations during a telling montage which contrasts the destructive lives of the victims with their respective pigs. The people are all shown to be trapped in their cloyingly monotonous and claustrophobic urban confines, while the pigs live out their sun-drenched, blissful agrarian existence.
Ambiguous and complex though the film may be, it’s nowhere near as difficult to follow as Primer, despite the reports of early reviewers to the contrary. Carruth is simply an extremely economical and essentialist filmmaker, offering audiences the bare minimum of cues and clues to piece together. It’s a methodology which surely betrays a filmmaker of supreme confidence and an uncommonly generous trust in his audiences’ intelligence.
Perhaps aware that Primer was notoriously dialogue-heavy, Carruth attempts to tell a complex and elliptical story in largely visual terms. The result is an almost narcotically sensual experience, a synesthete’s delight in which the intoxicating sonic waves of the electronic score and exceptional sound design help communicate the story as vitally as the imagery and dialogue. Photographically Carruth uses the narrow focus, high-contrast look that has become de rigeur in independent cinema, while intoxicating the viewer with glowing whites, cobalt blues, and enough opening petals and shimmering sunrays to make Malick swoon.
But despite the aesthetic pleasures to be had it’s a sad and mournful tale for the most part because our protagonists are denuded of their free will. Unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s no lone maverick heroically railing against the indoctrinated masses for us to identify with; no Neo with which to take the red pill. Our heroes are pathetic pawns mercilessly controlled by a high power. When the Sampler discovers there’s been a breach of security at the farm he separates and removes the pigs, and Kris and Jeff simultaneously find their lives unraveling beyond their control as they subconsciously react to the troubled state of their psychically-linked porcine avatars.
And this is where the film becomes not just a beautifully conceived film, but a significant story with much to say about the ills of our times. Like the characters in the under-rated Never Let Me Go, these lovers have no control over their destiny or future. When we consider their hopelessness it becomes apparent that Carruth’s tale carries post-crash connotations. The victims have their bank accounts emptied by their mysterious enemies, and more importantly they have no conceptual understanding of the reasons why or the arcane methods used.
Just as the 99% have been unable to pinpoint exactly where our economic fortunes have gone, who’s to blame and how we can move on and reconstruct our societies in such a void of comprehension, so our protagonists have given up not just their capital, but their personal histories and dignity too. Indoctrinated by media (in the film, Thoreau’s Walden and the Sampler’s ambient CDs) and oblivious to our fate we blindly cast around for connections and meaning while the deception continues unabated.
Upstream Color could even feasibly supplant John Carpenter’s They Live as Slavoj Žižek’s favoured text about capitalism’s hidden manipulation, with the possibility of Žižek’s line about how we all eat from the “trashcan of ideology” being superseded by ‘the pig-feed of ideology’.
But In a way it might have been more obvious Carruth was making a radical, political film if he’d ended the film on a note of despair (like Never Let Me Go). While I was watching the film I felt it had to end in this way to retain its power, but to Carruth’s credit he crafts an optimistic ending that’s so perfect one can’t imagine it any other way. The final 15-minutes, told entirely without dialogue, is a stunning sequence which encapsulates Carruth’s dexterous visual talent. But it also imparts a surprisingly hopeful message that there could be a way out of our current societal morass. Perhaps it’s not so foolish after all to dream of a more utopian alternate reality that’s awaiting us, out there somewhere. To arrive there would mean putting on Žižek’s sunglasses and breaking free of the cycle before we get dumped back into the river again, only to float back to our ordained upstream destiny.