This isn’t because they lack the ability to provide a cohesive product that can also make a buck. More likely, it’s owed to the fact that audiences avoid even investing time and effort into understanding something if its central message isn’t grasped and understood in the first fifteen (or so) minutes. These days, audiences expect quite a heavy load of the narrative to be front-loaded, and they’re typically unwilling to wait for whatever rewards might be situated right around the proverbial corner. As our attention spans have grown narrower and narrower, films that present a longer story or serve as an allegory for something bigger than the latest Ben Stiller comedy (“art” for the masses-at-large) or Martin Scorsese film (art for the critical masses) just aren’t given the time of day.
Now, granted, not every auteur-driven motion picture deserves as much commentary as the next, but a truly visionary film has the ability to not only change the way stories are told but also they might encourage us to think about ourselves and our roles in the greater world at large. They’re as challenging to behold as they challenge us, and this doesn’t sit well with the usual popcorn crowd.
To its credit, Upstream Color is something special. It’s something different. It’s both big and small in the same estimation … and – most of all? It deserves as audience.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Unlike writer/director (and star) Shane Carruth’s earlier film – Primer (2004) – which I found to be entirely far too esoteric or relatable for its own good, Upstream Color grounds its story in real characters that an audience can care about, root for, and seek to understand. (Mind you, their journey will not be all that clear from the picture’s start.) The hard science he leaves in the background, like a forever-present undercurrent driving the plot forward but isn’t so obvious that it ever truly takes central focus. It's both there as much as it isn’t as we’re taken along this discovery alongside people searching to solve a mystery tying them together in ways that won’t be clear until the ending.
Also, Carruth smartly populates Color with folks whose flaws enjoy both conventional and unconventional definition. You only understand pieces of them and their trajectories because knowing too much too soon might upset the delicate balance between story and substance. What looks black might be white – or vice versa – but it’s all presented in such a way that it’s easy to follow, almost daring viewers to ‘wait and see’ over gradual forward progress. In some ways, this technique swings open the door to some very conspiratorial waters, but the script maintains a clear and present Science Fiction foundation, one with layers, that’ll only casually be revealed. It’s a deft trick – blending fantasy with a bit of reality – but I thought it work brilliantly.
Amy (played with ‘girl-next-door’ aplomb by Amy Seimetz) finds her world unexplainably spiraling out of control as she awakens from a substance-abused ‘invasion’ which leaves her jobless and (nearly) penniless. As she begins her life anew, she finds herself curiously drawn to Jeff (Carruth) in ways that defy any logical explanation. It is as if destiny has, somehow, inexplicably pulled them together, though they’ve no collective understanding of why they behave with one another the way that they do. Together – and with great patience – they begin to explore the various ‘surprises’ of their shared existence, leading them to uncover the truth that their ‘joint reality’ is not quite what it seems.
Color is the kind of film whose story is difficult to describe without spoiling some of the tale’s internal magic.
Suffice it to say, the science-themed romance is nothing short of visual poetry probably best suited for cinema buffs, film aficionados, and academics who prefer more meat than sauce with their meals. It isn’t the kind of product that’s designed for immediately pay-off of shots and sequences and even smaller moments; it requires a cognitive investment on the part of the viewer. It takes time, and that isn’t something all viewers are willing to spare. Rest assured: it all goes somewhere. Everything presented has an answer, and yet it isn’t forthcoming in the same way that traditional films are more commonly constructed. This is one that’s revealed in substantive layers – in the nuances of what looks superficially to be even quirky performances by the players – and even the final scene can speak volumes to the person who finally ‘gets it.’
I’ve no doubt that some will or have dismissed Color as an art-house creation, and, to some degree, I suppose that’s a legitimate criticism. Certainly, these 90 minutes will not be to everyone’s liking. Discerning fans of intelligent science fiction will probably be most impressed … so long as they’re willing to make the commitment to come for the meal but stay for the pie.
Upstream Color is produced by ERBP. DVD distribution is being handled by Cinedigm Entertainment Group. As for the technical specifications … wow. The visual and audio elements of COLOR are exceptional; all aspects weave together to tell this singular story in several possible ways that are always clever and inspired. Unfortunately (and shame, shame, shame!), the only special features available on the disc I was provided are the theatrical trailers, and that doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface of what I would’ve expected or wanted. This film is something special, and, as such, I believe it deserved more.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Upstream Color served as an ‘Official Selection’ of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the 63rd Panorama Internationale Filmfestspiele of Berlin, the SXSW Film Festival, and the 2013 New Directors/New Films Festival. Also, the film won the Special Jury Prize for Sound Design at 2013’s Sundance.
Highest recommendation possible.
Upstream Color is an aggressively original vision of a world wherein cause, effect, and purpose collide in ways unimaginable. You’d be a fool not to discover it.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at ERBP via Cinedigm Entertainment Group provided me with a DVD copy of Upstream Color by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.