Upstream Color (2013)
Written and Directed by Shane Carruth
What’s more important, story or storytelling? I honestly have no idea.
A great story will stick with you for the rest of your life, whether or not it’s told well, because the beats of it, the brilliant bare components, resonate with your soul and become a part of you, and help expand how you see the world on a moral level. ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ is a great story. It’s so great we don’t even stop and think about how great it is. It’s just a part of us, as humans. You almost can’t remember a time in your life when you didn’t know it. And even if someone were to tell it to a little kid really poorly, its truth and importance would still come through.
On the other side of the coin, great storytelling can make you enjoy a story even if the story isn’t particularly great—hell, great storytelling can make you enjoy life even if life isn’t particularly great. Louis CK is a perfect example of a great storyteller. Adam Carolla is right up there too. They’re probably the best we’ve got currently, in my opinion. They color things in a unique way that helps us contextualize the mundane, the sad, the serious—basically, they can take any topic in this world and bring their highly particular slant to it. There’s a consistency to the outlook of great storytellers that essentially makes them modern day philosophers.
We all look for the best of both worlds when we watch a movie. Solid allegory and metaphor, but also resonance on a human condition level. But more often than not, we don’t get exactly that. We usually get a movie where the story is a bit better than the storytelling, or vice versa, and we forgive the discrepancy because what was good was so good.
But what do we do when faced with a movie that has an absolutely phenomenal story, and absolutely piss poor storytelling?
That’s a tough one.
Such is the case with Upstream Color.
Here we have a filmmaker who was struck by a lightning bolt from the gods with a completely brilliant, unique, interesting, and deep story. A golden gift from the universe. But he just did not have the storytelling chops, as a screenwriter or a director, to tell it properly.
It’s not that he’s a bad filmmaker per se. He just doesn’t seem to know when what he’s doing is working or not. The first act of this movie is actually quite good. I was floored by how much he had clearly improved since Primer, his flawed-yet-worth-seeing debut. In the first twenty minutes or so of Upstream Color, everything is in its right place, and it’s quite clear we’re dealing with an auteur. The best thing about Primer, in my opinion, was the way he took something so ordinary and simple, a storage facility, and found the ‘sci-fi’ in it. Shane has an extraordinary ability at finding the sci-fi in ordinary objects. And that comes through like gangbusters in the first act of Upstream Color. The man has a unique and fascinating mind, and when he’s in his element, the results are beautiful to behold.
Things take a quite blatant downturn after that first act though, as Shane ventures balls first into territory he’s absolutely inept at. Romance is not this man’s strong suit. It’s quite awkward watching him fail miserably as he tries to do the Charlie Kaufman thing of juggling both byzantine concepts and love. He’s reaching. Hard. And I guess he thinks he’s succeeding, because he spends a whole lot of time on romance in this movie. It’s unfortunately the meat of the whole thing. I’m not saying the film shouldn’t have had a love plot line at all—the story basically requires it in order for it to work—I just think he should’ve called someone in who knew more about that stuff. If not during the writing process, than in the editing room. If he had taken out all the least convincing romance scenes, the film probably would’ve been way better.
He also seems to have a bizarre desire to overcomplicate the uncomplicated. When you watch this whole movie, and learn what the entire story is, you see that it’s actually quite elegant and simple—and probably should’ve just been told in an elegant and simple way, rather than arbitrarily been made difficult to follow for no real reason. Why create a jigsaw puzzle where no jigsaw puzzle needs to exist? I was totally fine with that in Primer, because it made sense for the story. This one, not so much. It’s like he’s doing it just because he thinks it’s expected of him.
This movie should’ve just been a simple, straightforward, sci-fi parable, with some mystery and suspense sprinkled along the way, in a way similar to how its sprinkled in the first act. That’s all. And were it that, it would be a five star movie, in my book. And one of the best science fiction movies of all time. And maybe one of the best science fiction stories of all time, too.
I can’t stress enough that the actual story in this movie is fucking phenomenal. I have no idea how a story like this even comes out of a person’s mind. Which is part of the reason why I personally see artists as vessels. You can take that as spiritual or you can take that as metaphor, but what I mean is, the greatest ideas come from somewhere much higher than the artist. Whether the artist then conveys said idea well or not is something else entirely.
See this movie. Trudge through the poor storytelling for the story, which you will never forget and think about often. It’s one of the best allegories the universe has ever blessed us with.
2 1/2 out of 5 Codys. (Because I have no idea what’s more important, story or storytelling. If I give it 2 stars, I’m saying storytelling a little more important, if I give 3 stars, I’m saying story is more important.)