I don't really have any idea what the hell I just watched, to be honest with you.
Shane Carruth, of Primer fame, gives us his second and even more confusing film. Primer was a film about time travel that was so complicated that it became almost impossible to follow (seriously, if anyone can explain it to me without graphs or flowcharts they get a gold star) but at least you knew what it was that was confusing you (numerous alternate timelines and the jumps between). But with Upstream Color I'm not quite sure what it was that I didn't get.
I'd tell you what it's about but I'm still not quite so sure, so I'll just stick with Carruth's own description:
"Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives."
It's all very abstract and tied up in underlying themes rather than than direct plot and action. There's a lot of subtext (in my opinion) about the ideas of how much control we have, and how much we think we have over our everyday lives. Things like outside influences operating on us without our knowledge or acknowledgement, and being scared of something but not knowing what it is you're scared of.
Fans of films like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life will find Upstream Color delightful I imagine. The film plays with high concepts that are never explicitly stated (in fact, little is actually stated at all, Upstream Color is light on dialogue) and there is a heavy emphasis on soft framed and subdued but beautiful shots.
If you were to compare films to visual art, films like Upstream Color falls into the same category as modern art. Historically, especially so before photography, painting and visual art had an emphasis on recreating things exactly as they looked. Painters like Da Vinci were able to craft beautiful works that were lifelike and coherent much like say... a Spielberg film. Then you get to more modern types of art where it's all about triggering emotion and ideas. We don't need to strive for photorealism all the time now we have cameras, and we don't always need things like traditional storytelling or being hit over the head with themes in film either. Both types of both things are great. Sit me down in front of Saving Private Ryan or the Mona Lisa and I'll follow you through the entire experience and say "Wow, that was fantastically done!" when I finish. Just the same way, sit me down in front of one of Damien Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde or Upstream Color and I'll be all "I don't know exactly what this means, but I'm gonna have fun trying to figure it out!".
Upstream Color is an interesting experience, but don't expect to get too much out of it. This is a movie where you're really going to have to make up your own mind what you take away from it.