The film Upstream Color is a science fiction drama written, directed, produced, edited, composed, designed, cast by and starring Shane Caruth that came out in 2013. It is hard to briefly explain this movie in a way that is understandable without talking about the entire film. I would definitely recommend watching it, because not only will it make understanding it so much better than talking about it, but it is also a compelling, interesting story about identity and our experience as humans in society.
The film is about a parasite that has a three-stage life cycle which passes from humans to pigs to orchids. This parasite is used as a drug by a man referred to as the Thief that basically controls this victims minds making them highly responsive to suggestions. He uses this drug to steal from these people. After The Thief is done with his victims they are left abandoned and with no sense of direction until some type of sound draws these victims to a man referred to as The Sampler. In order to remove the parasite from these people The Sampler performs a transfusion where the parasite is transferred to a pig. As the movie develops we see that there is a parallel between these people and pigs. The film tells the story about two people who meet (Kris and Jeff), who have gone through this same experience and have no recollection of it. As the movie progresses the Thief’s victims discover some type of psychological or telepathic connection and the more time they spend together they start to remember each other’s history as their own and struggle with their identity.
At first glance this film is very confusing, and it is one of those films that you can only start to understand once you have finished watching it. Because it is so mysterious, and honestly very confusing, it draws the viewer in as we try to make sense of it. The biggest concern isn’t understanding what is taking place but what do all these things mean? In a film like this there are so many themes and symbols that can be interpreted differently by each individual.
Kris and Jeff are the two main characters who meet and discover they have a deep connection. They blame their problems and the course of their lives as a drug abuse, because they can’t explain. Neither of them remember what happened with them and that they were injected by the Thief with this parasite to control their minds and steal money from them. We see this happening to Kris and learn that it happened to Jeff also as we see they have the same scars.
The pigs used for the parasite transfusion are put together in a farm, where the Sampler takes care of them. We can see that there is a connection between the pigs and the people as the Sampler touches the pigs the scene cuts to images of random people doing their daily activities and the sampler behind them. These people seem all very unhappy.
This parallel with the pigs opens up a discussion about personal identity, about how it can be taken away and how it can be reasserted. As I mentioned, we discover that the pigs and the humans that the parasite was transfused from have some sort of connection and in the farm each pig “belongs” to different person as they seem to make a connection because of the procedure. Whatever happens to the pigs seem to affect these people and we see that through Kris and Jeff. Once Kris and Jeff get together and start to date, in the farm we see two pigs who are always together. Kris then believes to be pregnant, but she only felt that way because the pig which she had the connection to was pregnant. When the Sampler captures the piglets and throws them down a river Kris and Jeff have some sort of breakdown making them feel a sense of loss and frustration which causes Jeff to pick a fight with his co-workers and Kris to fixate on trying to find something she thinks she lost. Thinking there is something coming for them, leads them to take refuge in a bathtub together with a gun (a famous scene from the movie). Their identity and individuality were easily taken from them when they were victims of mind control and once their moods and actions were a result of what was happening with the pigs. Struggle with identity is also seen when Kris and Jeff connection causes them to unknowingly adopt each other’s memories.
When the piglets were thrown into the river we see a blue color emerging upstream from the pigs wounds. This then causes the orchids to become blue. These orchids are harvested by farmers who sells it in the area where the Thief lives, and that is how he gets the parasite he uses for mind control.
Another aspect that is explored is that personal identity and individuality can be reclaimed through acts against the system once and if it has been “stolen”. When the Thief was in control of their minds, he would give them silly tasks to distract them. One of the tasks was to transcribe words from the book The Walden and make paper chains. Towards the end of the movie Kris and Jeff are able to take control of their own identity and lives once they start to recite words from the book The Walden. After killing the Sampler, they find a box with information on all of the other people who underwent the same experience. They mail a copy of the Walden and summon these people them to the farm, where they start to take better care of the pigs. No pigs are thrown into the river anymore, so the orchids aren’t blue, breaking the cycle and depriving the Thief of the his drug.
Why the title Upstream Color? I feel like there are different ways that the title can be interpreted to fit the movie. The characters are being affected by some off screen force that can’t be explained. Carruth explains that they are being affected by things that they can’t also speak to, and all aspects of this there part cycle are being affected by each other but at the same time unaware of each other. They are independent but connected. He describes this as dealing with things that seemingly came from “upstream”. He did not have an explanation for the choice of the word “color”, only that it seemed appropriate at the time. To me the tittle of the movie came to mind on the scene where the pig is lying in the bottom of the river with the open wound and the color blue flows out of the pig upwards causing the river and consequently the orchids to be blue.
This film can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, and there are many more themes and symbols present in the film that I haven’t discussed. The use of the book Walden in the film as a key in understanding the film; the role of the Thief and of the Sampler; the three-stage life cycle of the parasite (humans-pigs-orchid) in which each element is unaware of the other; Kris and Jeff’s connection, among many others are some aspects of the film that also have meaning and are important to explore. This movie ultimately causes a discussion about whether we can control our identity or if identity controls us.