Is Upstream Color The Best Film of 2013?


(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Is Upstream Color, the new film from Shane Carruth, the best film of 2013?

Realistically, it’s probably too early to say.  After all, it’s only April and there’s a lot of films waiting to be released.  However, it’s hard for me to imagine how a more thought-provoking, haunting, and occasionally frustrating film could be released this year.

Don’t get me wrong.  A lot of viewers aren’t going to embrace this low budget, independently made film.  Some will dismiss Upstream Color as being pretentious or they’ll incorrectly assume that the film is all about style over substance.  Even in this age of Tree of Life and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Upstream Color is not the type of film that’ll be embraced come Oscar time.

But no matter.  As of right now, Upstream Color is the best film of 2013.

Director Shane Carruth made his directorial debut in 2004 with Primer.  Made on a budget of $7,000 and filmed in my hometown of Dallas, Primer was a low-key but intriguing film about time travel.  It was a science fiction film that succeeded not through CGI but through an intelligent presentation of ideas.  I have to admit that I’ve watched Primer a handful of times and I still don’t quite understand everything that happens in the film.  However, that’s a huge part of the film’s appeal.

The same can be said of Upstream Color.

Playing out like a mash-up of David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick and told through a series of jump cuts, Upstream Color begins with Kris (Amy Seimitz), a successful young woman who is kidnapped by an enigmatic figure known as the Thief (Thiago Martins).  The Thief uses a drug made out of orchid larvae to hijack her mind.  Once she has given him all of her money, the Thief vanishes while the larva continues to grow in Kris’s body.

A mysterious man identified in the credits as The Sampler (played quite brilliantly by Andrew Sensenig) comes to Kris’s aid.  As Kris lies unconscious in a tent, The Sampler cuts the larva out of her body and then puts it into the body of a pig.  The pig is set loose in a pen with hundreds of other pigs who apparently carry larvae in their bodies.  Kris, meanwhile, wakes up the next morning in her car with no memory of why she’s covered in blood, why she’s lost her job, or why her bank account is now empty.

One jump cut later and suddenly, we see Kris riding a train through downtown Dallas.*   We’re not sure how much time has passed but we can see that Kris has changed.  With her hair cut short, Kris sits huddled in the back of the train.  Also on the train is Jeff (Shane Carruth).  Despite Kris’s efforts to be anonymous, Jeff notices her and eventually manages to strike up a conversation with her.

Kris finds herself oddly drawn towards Jeff, especially after he confesses to her that he once stole a lot of money from his employers and he’s not quite sure why he did it.  Not realizing that they’re both victims of the Thief, Jeff and Kris fall in love.  Fortunately, Carruth and Seimetz have a palpable chemistry.  You believe both of them as wounded souls and as lovers.  As a result, even as the film gets more and more surreal, you still care about these two characters and their relationship.

While Kris and Jeff fall in love and struggle to understand what happened to them in the past, the Sampler continues to appear throughout the film as a detached observer.  Sometimes, he’s recording the sounds of nature.  At other times, he’s looking over his pigs.  And then, sometimes, he’s just there.  For his first few appearances, the Sampler seems to be almost a benevolent figure but, halfway through the film, he performs one action that forces you to reconsider everything that you’ve previously seen him do.

Who is the Sampler and how is he connected to the Thief and Kris and Jeff?  This is one of the many questions that the film poses and, quite frankly, the answer is not easy to find.  Don’t get me wrong, the answer is there.  You just have to be willing to look for it.  Carruth, a former engineer, directs with an eye for the reoccurring patterns of nature. (For instance, the curve of the larva in Kris’s bloodstream is later replicated by the sight of Kris and Jeff curled up in each other’s arms.)  As opposed to the very verbal Primer, Upstream Color is a film almost totally told through image and, as a result, one has to be willing to be an observant viewer in order to learn the answers to the film’s questions.  The film’s final 15 minutes features no dialogue, just images scored to Carruth’s propulsive electronic score.  It’s a brave move on Carruth’s part and, even more importantly, it works brilliantly.

As you might guess from reading this review, Upstream Color is not an easy film to understand.  As a filmmaker, Carruth emphasizes the surreal and the obscure but, much like David Lynch, he comes up with images that are so haunting that you can’t look away even if you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing.  Upstream Color may, at times, be an obscure film but it’s compelling in its obscurity.  This is a film that is meant to be seen with four of your smartest friends.  This is a film that is meant to be debated and argued about.

In other words, it may very well be the best film of 2013.

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*On a personal note, I do have to admit that I loved seeing how much of this movie was filmed at places that I either go to or drive by every single day.

Review: Oblivion (dir. by Joseph Kosinski)


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Good science-fiction films tend to be far and few between. Most of the time the ideas and ambition to make a good or great science-fiction film are right there on paper, but loses much once people actually have to create it for others to see. This puts the latest sci-fi film from Tron: Legacy filmmaker Joseph Kosinski in a weird position. His follow-up to the underwhelming sequel to the classic sci-fi film Tron is called Oblivion and it manages to be thought-provoking and entertaining, yet also have a sense of a been there and done that to the whole proceeding.

Oblivion quickly gets the introductions to the film’s backstory out of the way. Earth was attacked 60 years ago by aliens who were called “Scavengers” (Scavs for short) who destroyed the moon thus causing massive tectonic upheaval and gigantic tsunamis to ravage the planet. Humanity in its desperation would fight back with the only weapons it had left once the aliens began landing troops and that would be the nuclear kind. The planet is now devastated with the surviving population leaving Earth for a new colony on Saturn’s moon of Titan and in a massive tetrahedron space station orbiting Earth simply called “The Tet”.

It’s the story of the technician pair left behind to provide support for the array of armed drones who patrol Earth for any remaining Scavs and protect the reclamation factories that has been removing the remaining resources that the planet has to be used as an energy source for the Titan colony. This pair of technician are Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who live in a towering base above the clouds. Jack does the dirty work by flying patrols in the area that encompasses what used to be the East Coast of the United States while Victoria (who also happens to be Jack’s lover) provides comm and technical support back at their base.

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Victoria can’t wait to finish their five-year stint on Earth and with two weeks left before they can rejoin the rest of humanity on Titan her dream is coming closer. Yet, Jack doesn’t seem to want to leave Earth behind. He has begun to dream about Earth before the war that he should have no memory of. First they’re dreams while he’s asleep but as the film shows it soon begins to invade and distract his waking hours as well.

It’s during one such mission where he comes across the a sudden arrival of a human spacecraft with surviving humans aboard that his dreams become reality. A woman he has dreamed off that he’s never met is one of the survivors (played by Olga Kurylenko) and she becomes the key to unlocking the secret that’s been kept from him about the true nature of the war that devastated Earth sixty years past and why he continues to have flashes of memories that he should never have had.

Oblivion sounds like it’s original at first glance, but as the story moves along we begin to see influences (at times outright plot point lifts) from past innovative sci-fi films such as Moon and The Matrix. While Kosinski (who co-wrote the film as well as directed it) does put his own spin on these ideas it’s not enough to fully distinguish the film from past sci-fi films which did them better. Oblivion is not bad by any means, but it fails to stretch beyond it’s influences that would’ve made it a great film instead of just being a good one. It doesn’t help that the script lags behind Kosinski’s talent for creating some beautiful images and vistas. The world-building he does with art director Kevin Ishioka manages to make a devastated Earth look serenely beautiful which when paired with cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s panoramic sweeps of the Icelandic location shoot make Oblivion one of the best looking film of 2013.

Yet, the script tries too hard to explore some heavy themes such as the nature of memory and identity. The film doesn’t explore them enough to make this film come off as something heavy sci-fi like Solaris. It just teases the audience enough to start a spark that could lead to conversations afterwards. The action that does punctuate the more introspective sections of the film does come off quite well despite coming only few at a time and not for any extended length.

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What seems to hold the film together outside of it’s visuals would be the performance of the cast which sees Tom Cruise doing a very workman-like performance as Jack. We’ve seen him do this sort of performance time and time again that it seems to be second-nature to him by now and something audiences come to expect now. Even Morgan Freeman as an aged resistance fighter lends a bit of serious gravitas to the film whenever he’s on-screen. But it’s the performances of the two female leads that sells the film despite it’s flaws. Olga Kurylenko has less to work with in the role of Jack’s mystery woman Julia. What she does get she does so with a level of empathy that instantly sells the notion that Jack and her were destined to be together despite the vast gulf of time and space.

The stand-out performance comes from Andrea Riseborough as Jack’s lover and partner Victoria. Where Jack comes off as restrained chaotic glee who marvels at the sight he sees every day he’s out on patrol the opposite is Victoria. Her organized and reserved demeanor comes off as sexy in a cold and calculated way, yet just behind that British reserve we see glimpses of her hanging on by a thread at the chaos she sees in Jack. Andrea Riseborough plays Victoria so well that every scene she’s in she steals it from Cruise. Her performance was all about slight changes to her body movement, a quick glance that speaks volumes of what she’s thinking. While this film may not make Riseborough an outright star it will get her noticed by other filmmakers soon enough.

With the summer blockbuster season of 2013 coming closer like a freight train with the approach of Iron Man 3 it’s a good thing that Oblivion was released weeks before this hectic season. For despite it’s flaws in it’s script and the lack of originality in it’s premise the film does succeed in being entertaining and thought-provoking enough that people should see it on the big-screen. Plus, nothing but the massive screen (especially IMAX) does full justice to some of the vistas shot of Iceland that doubles as devastated Earth. So, while Oblivion may not be the slam-dunk hit for Kosinki after failing with Tron: Legacy it is still a film worth checking out.