It may be a good thing that this year's SXSW film festival was oddly lacking in science fiction movies -- Shane Carruth's Upstream Color would have made them all look bad.
That's not to say that this film is for everybody. Like Carruth's previous film (the uber-complicated, intellectual time-travel film Primer), Upstream Color plunges audiences into a bizarre world with no obvious answers and no hand-holding, sprinting ahead and not caring if you can't keep up. However, Primer fans may also find themselves alienated by what Carruth is doing here, replacing any and all hard science with pure, unadulterated romanticism. Some may even argue that Upstream Color isn't even science fiction and depending on their definition of the genre, they may even have a point.
To attempt to describe Upstream Color is to fail to describe Upstream Color, as the film eschews traditional storytelling in every way. With almost no dialogue and a plot driven by gorgeous cinematography and unforgettable sound design (see this one in the loudest theater you can find), Carruth tells the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz) whose life is ruined by a criminal who uses a drug that creates psychic connections between two people to manipulate her into clearing out her bank account and giving up everything of value that she owns. With her body, mind and life in ruins, she meets and falls in love with Jeff (Carruth), a similarly damaged individual. Although the rest of the film dips in and out of the sci-fi elements that kick-start the plot, much of the film focuses on their relationship, following these two shattered people as they attempt to put their lives back together.
The resulting film is something halfway between Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky, which may very well tell you right away if this is something up your alley or if it's something you should avoid at all costs.
Science fiction fans looking for robots or spaceships need not apply -- Upstream Color uses sci-fi as a jumping-off point for other, seemingly grounded ideas. Emphasis on the "seemingly" there. By freely jumping between the bizarre life cycle of the above-mentioned psychic drug (it involves involuntary surgery and pigs) and the burgeoning relationship between Kris and Jeff, Upstream Color invites you to compare a hard sci-fi idea to a relationship and comes to a conclusion: one is no more complicated than the other. Just as it's a miracle (albeit a terrible miracle) that this drug exists in the first place, it's a miracle that two individuals can fall in love on a planet inhabited by billions of people. The science fiction elements of Upstream Color never really make sense, but they don't need to -- if we can't discover the code or recipe for love, then why even bother with things that are beyond our human comprehension?
At first, Upstream Color will seem like it's holding you at arm's length, being intentionally obtuse and keeping you in the dark for unknown reasons. However, beneath that cold and impenetrable surface, there beats the heart of a true romantic. After the icy logic of Primer, the unexpected emotional punch of Upstream Color may come as a shock: You're so busy trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together that you don't see the whole picture, but when you do (and it may take a day or two for it to fully click), it's beautiful.
Upstream Color is one of the best films of year so far and it sets a high bar for smart, adult science fiction in the year to come. It's proof that the sci-fi genre doesn't have to be all about action on blockbuster budgets. Heck, it's proof that sci-fi doesn't have to be about a concept at all -- Carruth reminds us that people are still the greatest mystery of all.