Much like the way Primer embodied a sense of ambiguity, a higher metaphysical power delving into the topic of quantum physics and time travel through a cryptic jargon-filled dialogue between 4 friends, in the same way Carruth’s sophomore effort Upstream Color entrances us in the world of microbiology, but this time all the jargon is replaced with hypnotic visual imagery that almost teaches through soothing subliminal messaging. There is not much you can make out of a film which deals with a supernatural force breathing its existence through an immortal parasite which brings people together by a strange emotional connection. To say Carruth’s film is ambitious is not enough… it is about something the filmmaker himself does not understand fully and he himself is trying to discover with each step of the process. In the end, the reason Upstream Color doesn’t weigh much more than what you assume on the surface is because Carruth treats discovery of art and beauty the way a scientist would, through methodical process instead of intuition.
Of course, it may be a bit cliche to do the Tree of Life comparison to this film, but it’s appropriate in terms of contrasting Malick and Carruth’s approaches. Carruth’s narrative development is like a surgeon and his scalpel, he follows a specific methodical guideline that he keeps locked up in his mind and transitions it from one image to the next. That’s why Upstream Color feels like it has no flow to it, but rather is a powerpoint sequence of images that is supposed to be interpretive. The Tree of Life flowed because it was dictated by Malick’s vision, his belief, purposes and love rather than his mind. But I guess with Upstream Color, Carruth really did treat it like a science-fiction experiment because his direction was indicative more of a scientific method rathar than a free-flowing art. I liked the film, but it wasn’t satisfying.