Upstream Colour: what on earth does it mean?

Upstream Colour: what on earth does it mean?

Shane Carruth's alluring and enigmatic drama is pondered by three List film critics

WARNING: Major spoilers ahead

'It's about fragile notions of self-actualisation and identity' - Eddie Harrison

As a critic, the best cinema experiences are frequently those found alongside a paying audience, and ideally without prior knowledge of the film's content. I sat down in the intellectually austere environs of the IFC in Greenwich Village to watch Upstream Colour with no real idea of what the film was about, other than my previous exposure to the lofty time-travel paradigms of writer/director Shane Carruth's first film Primer. Ninety minutes later, I was none the wiser, having wrestled my way through an aesthetically beautiful set of images that left me, and the dazzled, muttering customers around the cinema, captivated but utterly baffled.

The opening sequences, in which young woman Kris (Amy Seimetz) is seemingly transplanted with some kind of tiny worm which allows her actions to be controlled by several shadowy male figures, seemed to suggest some kind of David Cronenberg sci-fi puzzle. But after about twenty minutes, a completely different narrative appears to emerge, as Kris begins a romantic relationship with fellow victim Jeff (Carruth), with the action intercut with impenetrable goings on at a pig farm. That the actions of the humans and the pigs are in some way linked becomes vaguely apparent, and Upstream Colour ends with a violent confrontation that seems to suggest the protagonists had experienced and successfully revolted against some kind of mind-control experiment. Reading message boards and interviews with the director afterwards, it soon emerged that I was not the only one who had been moved, manipulated and eventually confounded by the film.

The oddest thing about Upstream Colour was that the experience of watching, then researching and discussing the content of the film with other viewers, actually mirrored the events contained in the film. Finding out afterwards that the characters were called Thief or Sampler provides a foothold on what's going on, but these titles are not featured in the film until the final credits, and so the weighty theories offered about what's happening are only possible in hindsight. Like the best puzzle films, from Last Year In Marienbad or Duncan Jones' Moon, Upstream Colour refuses to explain itself, give up its secrets, or conform to any convenient explanation, and that's what makes it so fascinating. Like Kris and Jeff, the audience are taken in, beguilingly befuddled, and then spat back out, left to ponder on what makes us who we are, and the fragile notions of self-actualisation and identity.

'Trying to explain every plot twist and turn might be missing the point' - Gail Tolley

In 1960 Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura was first screened at Cannes Film Festival. The story of a woman who disappears while on a trip to an island with friends startled audiences for one simple reason: the mystery at the centre of the film was never resolved. It received some boos on its first screening but that didn't stop it becoming one of the most discussed and critically-praised films of its time. Film lovers who watch L'Avventura today will still find something that is beautiful, unique and utterly memorable.

Upstream Colour is a very different beast to L'Avventura, and in some ways with its deliberately obtuse plotting it asks for audiences to attempt to decipher it. However, like L'Avventura, it's a film that can be enjoyed for far more than its story. Upstream Colour creates the strange, disorientating sensations of a dream (or perhaps more accurately, a nightmare), and this haunting atmosphere lingers long after the film has finished. It's also beautifully shot, with greys and blues mirroring the sterile, controlled world its character exists in.

What exactly Upstream Colour means is likely to remain a mystery for most of those who see it. Perhaps it is simply about a god-like character who is also a pig farmer (although even that explanation doesn't quite explain the film's ending). Perhaps too there is a clue in its frequent references to Henry David Thoreau's Walden, a book published in 1854 about nature, spirituality and attempting to transcend our everyday existence.

A lot of fun can be had in puzzling over Shane Carruth's film but trying to explain every plot twist and turn might be missing the point. Part of the joy of Upstream Colour is wallowing in its strange science fiction world. Life is full of unexplained moments and strange events, Upstream Colour reflects some of life's mystery. My suggestion to those wondering how to make sense of it all: just sit back and enjoy the ride.

'As a united whole, humanity no longer has a use for a God who doesn't care' - Niki Boyle

'Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?
[ … ] You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you.'

This line of dialogue, from 1999's Fight Club, predates Upstream Colour by a good 14 years, yet it holds the key to understanding Shane Carruth's biological, metaphysical drama.

Imagine God, not as some benign creator with humanity's best interests at heart, but as a scientist with other passions, for whom mankind is but a minor piece of the puzzle. In Upstream Colour, God is represented by the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a pig farmer who spends his time collecting (and delighting in) ambient noise samples from the natural world. Mankind, for this God, is merely a carrier for something more valuable: he takes specially-infected samples of humanity, binds their DNA (and, as an accidental by-product, their souls) to those of his pigs (his real focus), and then discards them.

The process is cyclical: when a genetically modified pig gives birth, God disposes of the piglets in the nearest river. Their bodies rot, and their modified DNA seeps into the stream, where it is absorbed by orchids growing on the riverbank. These special, blue-tinted orchids are collected by florists, and sold to Upstream Colour's Satan character: the Thief (Thiago Martins). The Thief uses the biological agent harvested from the orchids to drug, brainwash and condition his targets; when he has stripped them of their earthly possessions, they are left to find their way to the Sampler, who performs his genetic transfusion, completing the cycle.

What the Sampler, in his distance from humanity, fails to anticipate is the metaphysical link shared not just by his pigs and their humans, but also by the humans with each other. Kris and Jeff are both survivors of the process who find each other, forming an immediate connection. Alone, they would have suffered their fate; together, they're strong enough to uncover the process and end it. This is Upstream Colour's ultimate message: as a united whole, humanity no longer has a use for a God who doesn't care.

Upstream Colour is on release from Fri 30 Aug.

Upstream Color: Theatrical Trailer

Upstream Colour

  • 4 stars
  • 2013
  • US
  • 1h 36min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Shane Carruth
  • Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
  • UK release: 30 August 2013

A woman is kidnapped, operated on and then released, whereupon she meets a man who may have been subject to the same treatment. Writer/director/actor Shane Carruth's follow-up to Primer is a baffling slice of sci-fi.