I finally saw Shane Carruth’s 2012 follow-up to 2004’s Primer, and boy is my brain tired. Much like that former movie, Upstream Color is a perfectly understandable story filmed in a way that doesn’t spoon-feed you everything that’s going on or what it means. Nobody trusts his audience to figure stuff out quite like Shane Carruth. The good thing about Upstream Color is that you can discern what happened without seeing it 20 times or consulting an insanely detailed multi-tiered internet chart. Having said that, it’s just as philosophically stimulating. Its implications are super-interesting, even if the actual movie drags in spots, and has Packer Sweep-level plot holes.
Spoiler Fun Area — You should probably go back in time (a la Primer) and see Upstream Color before reading further.
The difference in complexity between the two movies can be easily explained in terms of the subject matter: Primer is concerned with time travel (always a bugaboo) while Upstream Color is concerned with life cycles. There exists a fictional worm with a three-stage life cycle:
- It lives in white orchids and turns them into rare blue orchids
- It’s harvested from the blue orchids and fed to unsuspecting humans, in whom it creates a hypnotically suggestible state until the human is fed, at which point it grows to enormous lengths.
- It’s pulled from the human and inserted into pigs, which creates a weird psychic worm-link between the worm-filled pig and the former human the worm inhabited. It passes the worm to the pig’s babies, who release a blue dye into the wild that turns the orchids blue.
Of course, the story is not about the worms. It’s about the people who are victimized in stage 2, and their long journey to take control of the situation and break the cycle. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not a feel-good movie in that the main victimizer doesn’t get his comeuppance for destroying multiple lives through hypnotic worm-nappings. No, the person who gets the comeuppance is the morally ambiguous Stage 3 guy, who puts the overgrown worms into the pigs, then spies on the worms’ former owners through them in order to compose music. I guess that doesn’t really sound very morally ambiguous when you type it out. Anyway, the main character kills the pig guy, and stops him from dropping pig babies into the river, which stops the orchids from turning blue, which stops the bad guy from harvesting the hypno-worms. I felt pretty good about it, this ending of the cycle.
Upstream Color is beautiful and dreamy, but plot structure suffers for its art. It requires the main character to be destroyed and stranded alone in her post-worm world, so zero (0) of her family members, former friends, or co-workers appear in the film. Think about this: If an evil man used a worm to hypnotize you into not leaving the house for a few days, do you think that would grab some attention? If I didn’t answer the phone or show up to work for a few days, people would freak the heck out, even if I hypnotically called in sick. If I liquidated all my home’s equity at my bank, I would think that would throw up some red flags. Because the money went somewhere, right? Clearly I was scammed. Even if I thought I was crazy, there was a person who took advantage of the situation, right? And in any case, WHERE IS THIS GIRL’S FAMILY?
So it works as a probably unintentional screed against careerist isolationism, is all I’m saying.
And there had to be at least 20 local people who had been victimized by this guy; wouldn’t mental health professionals be putting two and two together? For that matter, how did this evil guy figure out this whole hypno-worm thing, anyway? And why does it use it seemingly only to steal money?* And how can he live with himself afterwards?
Having said that, I must say the whole movie is worth seeing just for the scene depicted on the poster, where the main character and Shane Carruth sense their psychic pig-babies being thrown down the river and wind up in their bathtub together with a handgun. It’s pretty neato.
To those who haven’t seen the movie, I’m sorry. You should know that every one of the paragraphs above does really make sense.
*One way in which Primer is superior to Upstream Color is that the immoral characters eventually realize that their time machine can be used to give them so much more than just money. As you might imagine, it’s also quite a bit more depressing.