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Yesterday bailed on a new movie disappointingly incompatible with my head-hardware, so this evening rented Upstream Color from Amazon as a palate-cleanser. I last saw it in a theater during its original 2013 release. Out of mindless synchronicity I’ve run into a cluster of mentions of it across my Twitter timeline this past week, so it easily bubbled up as something I might like to watch again today. I made a good decision; I enjoy the movie least as much now as I did four years ago.
Upstream Color presents a very subtle science-fiction movie, much as the director’s earlier masterpiece Primer, but not at all with a twisting puzzle-story like that one. It does obscure its plot, with the through-line of its story occurring entirely outside of dialogue, but it also gives you everything you need to unfold it after a single viewing. Its final scenes, as an assist, loop back to its initial ones like one of the paper chains its damaged and haunted protagonists find themselves compelled to build. Having received it, you can unglue it, smooth it out, and read it straight through, albeit with a little effort. I had to retire to a bar with the friend I saw it with in 2013 in order to hash it out initially, but we did just fine.
It was my dear wife who kindly tolerated my choice of this evening’s entertainment, and then turned to me in bewilderment when the credits rolled. She accepted my rattled-off explanation, remembered from four years ago, as coherent — if obviously impossible in the real world. Which: granted. “The world, but half a degree cockeyed” makes for some of my very favorite fantasy, time and again.
So I remembered the central thread but I had forgotten other stuff. Somehow, I did entirely forget how the movie front-loads a not-insignificant amount of body horror. Everything I recalled about the movie, all the stuff I liked and the one bit I didn’t like so much, all happen long after the movie’s overtly squishiest scenes. I did have to apologize to my patient viewing partner tonight for promising a subtly disturbing movie, and then within minutes oh hello worms everywhere how do you do, would you like more worms and knives we have plenty. Sorry!
What I did recall of the film from my first viewing commences with the wonderfully wobbly and even slightly upsetting first-date scenes between the two protagonists, mashing towards one another for reasons as incomprehensible to them as to we who watch them. Their misaligned meet-cute on the subway brings to mind the fantastically weird romance between Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh’s characters in The Manchurian Candidate — probably my single favorite film, and perhaps so surprising a reference point to find here that it erased all memory the preceding creepy-crawlies. (Really: sorry!!)
I have softened on the one element that didn’t sit well with me on my first viewing, a certain extreme course of action taken by the protagonists to achieve the story’s resolution. At first it seemed out of character, and really out of nowhere; a hard-to-swallow shortcut to simplify the protagonists’ situation and allow them to draw things to a close. On this rewatch, I see how the movie very clearly foreshadows it almost from the start, but more importantly I felt I could better see how the antagonists’ abusive selfishness brings such thorough and multi-layered damage to the main characters. I sympathized more with the fury the protagonists must feel when they have an inkling about its source. (And because this is a Shane Carruth movie, we don’t even see the fury, just the spaces around it, and that probably makes the outcome all the more shocking.) Arguably, the violence of their reprisal is at least somewhat misdirected and unfair, as well as monstrous. But it feels less objectionable to me, now.
Anyway, I don’t know if you’d like this movie, but I like it a lot.
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