Upstream Color will make you feel like you are having a dream. Its scenes are sound-tracked with haunting ambient music instead of dialogue, it contains no exposition, and its most dramatic, climactic moment is a scene in which one person looks up from a table to make eye contact with another person. It is a movie that will make you feel like you are floating, and it does all this despite being a science fiction movie about a mad scientist, a mysterious creature, telepathy, and experiments on pigs. It’s an amazing achievement of storytelling and acting, if you can find a quiet place to watch it in the dark for about an hour and half, I guarantee you will be left with your mind racing.
At its core, Upstream Color is about a substance that makes people vulnerable to hypnotic suggestion and somewhat telepathic, and the victims of someone who uses that substance unethically. It’s a basic science fiction story, with a villain, a monster, a sci-fi McGuffin, and plucky heroes overcoming obstacles and finding romance along the way. In some hands that story could make a throw away action movie, or maybe a passable horror flick. In this movie, writer/director/composer/co-star Shane Carruth demonstrates how limited we are in the way we tell stories, and takes the adage to show instead of tell all the way to the limit. This is the opposite of a Star Wars crawl, serving up its without explanation, and it works. We find out who these people are and what is being done to them by watching it happen. Remember how I mentioned hypnotic suggestion and telepathy? Neither of those words is used in this movie at all. We know a woman is being hypnotized because we hear a man tell her that she will feel no hunger or pain, we know two people are telepathic because we see them get confused in each other’s thoughts. No one grabs their head and screams “He’s reading my thoughts!!!” Instead two people silently look at each other across a hotel ballroom, but Upstream Color leaves you no doubt as to what’s occurring.
Carruth manages to pull this off in a movie with almost no dialogue. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that relies more on facial expressions. Star Amy Seimetz spends most of the movie with the camera positioned three inches from her face, flawlessly conveying frustration, sadness, fear and triumph without saying a word, just flicking her eyes and twisting her mouth. As mentioned above, this movie’s climax is a glance, a moment of eye contact, and Seimetz manages to make that moment have the same punch as Rocky knocking out Ivan Drago or Bruce Willis dropping Alan Rickman off a building.
An essentially silent movie with no explanation of its own complicated science mystery plot sounds like a recipe for a confused viewer, but in this case it’s not. I think Carruth fine-tuned his story-telling skills since his sci-fi time-travel start-up debut Primer, which I had to watch twice in a row back to back to wrap my mind around. Upstream Color‘s story is intuitive and isn’t hard to follow. It’s also paced well, starting off with a bang and then winding down to let your mind work before it gets blown again. Find some time and a quiet room and see this movie- it’ll worm its way into your brain.