Ah, science fiction. One of the oldest film genres there is, the very mention of its name conjures up images of aliens, robots and lasers. But director Shane Carruth has very different ideas. His cult hit 2004 debut Primer is a down to earth take on time travel as two ordinary working stiffs discover it by accident, and now nine years later he’s back with another wonderful take on the genre. Upstream Colour takes complex ideas and dresses them up as a modern day romance, albeit one with mind controlling insects and psychic pigs. The phrase “true original” is rarely more apt.
Film begins as office drone Kris (the brilliant Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped by an unnamed man who force-feeds her a parasite which makes her extremely docile and obedient. Whilst in this state he instructs her to give him her life savings and then abruptly leaves. Another man picks her up and surgically removes the grub, transferring it into the body of a pig. Kris wakes up with no memory of what has occurred and is left trying to piece her life back together with the help of Jeff (played by the director), an awkward man who may or may not have been through the same experience. Together they try and make sense of the mystery. Of course such a basic synopsis only scratches the surface of this film, which is brimming with ideas and subplots only hinted at. Be warned – Carruth requires his audience to do a lot of the work. The film is at times baffling but never incomprehensible, and by the climax those paying attention will be justly rewarded.
The heart of the film though comes from the burgeoning romance between Kris and Jeff. Whereas Donnie Darko dressed up its complex sci-fi ideas as an eighties teen movie, Upstream Colour can essentially be read as a romance between two severely damaged people, mercifully free of the forced quirkiness that infected the likes of Silver Linings Playbook. You root for these characters and badly want it to all turn out well at the end, although in this sort of film that is far from a certainty. The theme of connections runs through the film – Kris has a psychic link to the pig which has inherited her parasite, and even the parasite itself has its own journey to go on. To go further into the many themes and ideas would be to become spoiler-happy, although if all this makes the film sound coldly intellectual it really isn’t. There are some surprising flashes of dark humour, a worm crawls under skin in the manner of an eighties body-horror and the relationship between Kris and Jeff is well acted and genuinely touching. I’d be very surprised if Amy Seimetz isn’t a bigger name in a few years.
For all the strengths though of the writing and acting what has lingered for me long after the viewing is the combination of cinematography and sound. It’s no coincidence that a key character is a sound engineer, seen at various points throughout the film experimenting with recordings. The sound is incredible, mixing Carruth’s atmospheric score with crisp natural sound. Rain has never sounded so menacing. The cinematography is great too, the whole film shot in a harsh bleached-out light and making a fantastic use of space. We would probably be talking Oscar nominations if members of the Academy would ever see such an independent film
Undoubtedly a labour of love for Carruth, who not only directs but wrote, acted, produced, did the cinematography, wrote and performed the haunting electronic score, edited, did the production design and the sound design. Phew. He also stuck to his guns, insisting his financial backers not interfere remotely with any aspect of production; a luxury only afforded the likes of Spielberg or Tarantino. No wonder it took him nine years. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for his third.
To sum up – stick with it and it will reward you. In a week where the big cinema releases include the latest Michael Bay explosionfest and a documentary about One Direction this provides something genuinely original, challenging and ultimately moving. Brilliant.