Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a rare beast – a science fiction movie with essentially no exposition. The scenes and images that are displayed are sometimes metaphors, sometimes dreams, and it is up to us to sort out what is true, and how it all fits together. Some things are relatively clear, but motivations and causality often is not.
Watching this film brought to mind a page in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud explains his view that by juxtaposing two images, an author creates some sort of meaning, no matter how disparate those images might be:
This movie seems to be an exploration of this concept. We see things that happen in a sequence. Some of these things have a clear narrative relationship to each other, but others, less so. The characters move through a dreamlike space, all soft lighting, eerie instrumental music, and low camera angles. Dialogue is muttered, characters are sometimes inscrutable, and the screen is littered with strange images.
Throughout, there are images of parasitic worms, worms which infect the heroine, Kris, and her lover Jeff. Parasites have some amazing abilities to manipulate their hosts. Many have complex life cycles that require them to pass through multiple hosts. In order to move from host to host, some parasites can cause strange and suicidal behavior – if it needs to get from an ant to a cow, the liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum causes the ant to cling to the top of a blade of grass, the better to be consumed by a passing ruminant. Toxoplasma gondii makes rats to lose their fear of cats, the better to be eaten, letting this protozoan enter its preferred feline habitat. Amprulex compressa is a wasp that turns cockroaches into zombies with its sting to provide a living meal for its young.
Strange as the natural world is, the worms in Upstream Color are odder yet. These mealworm-mimics appear to dwell in the soil near the roots of certain plants, notably orchids. When eaten by a human (or other mammal, presumably), they almost instantly change their host’s behavior. Not only do they affect their hosts neurologically – leading to a state of extreme susceptibility to suggestion – they also have psychic, even spiritual consequences. When Kris’s worm is surgically transplanted to a pig, she becomes somehow spiritually linked to the animal, as if part of her soul was moved as well. Not only is she linked to the hog who has her own worm, she seems to be somehow metaphysically entangled with a man who had been infected with a different worm.
Perhaps the worms themselves are not the sole cause of strange behavior of Kris and Jeff. Instead, I interpret all of them (human hosts, pigs, and orchids) as being carriers of something else, something I’ll call the Blue. Throughout, there are images of spreading blue color, blue crystals on the leaves of plants, blue pigment oozing from the bodies of worms, blue spreading over cells inside Kris’s body, blue spilling from the rotting body of an unfortunate piglet, blue coloring the petals of once-white orchids. The Blue is what ties together Kris and her pig, and her lover. But what is the Blue? A virus? An alien force? A magical one? An allegory?
In Carruth’s previous movie, Primer, the premise is very clearly explained, but the plot becomes difficult to follow, even on multiple viewings. Primer involves a time machine, and the rules by which the machine operates are precisely delineated. However, following the consequences of those rules (and the motivations of the characters) is an increasingly complex endeavor, and the last twenty minutes may require a flow chart and a penchant for logic puzzles. Upstream Color is an experiment in the opposite direction. There is never (much) question about what is happening, but it is entirely unclear why. This leads to an interesting collaboration between author and viewer. It is always necessary to fill in some gaps in movies – what happens offscreen, what happens behind the characters’ eyes – but this film leaves the gaps wider than most dare to.