Shane Carruth's elliptical Upstream Color has all the makings of a singular experience. The film — which screens Thursday, Feb. 28 at the Sundance Sunset 5 courtesy of Cinefamily in advance of its April 15 release — was written, directed, shot, co-edited, and produced by Carruth, who also stars in and is self-distributing it.
The long-awaited followup to Primer, which first displayed the DIY filmmaker's propensity for understated headiness on a reported budget of $7,000 and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance nine years ago, represents the potential fulfillment of what many consider a uniquely promising talent.
At its core, though, it's hampered by the same underlying problem as its predecessor: the core ideas being explored (time travel there, mind control and shared memories here) are intrinsically fascinating but do not a compelling story make. In according so much import to what in most other films would amount to little more than sensory minutiae — running faucets, falling rocks — the director works himself into a corner: one eventually grows so weary of discerning the signal from the noise that it all blurs together.
By the time Upstream Color reveals itself to be about the coming together of two equally (and similarly) troubled souls, we've spent so much time working out its puzzle that the heart-shaped piece doesn't quite fit. There's no denying the ambition and ingenuity on display here, but Carruth's willful abstraction so precludes visceral immersion that only the sporadic appearance of oddly adorable piglets elicits a genuine emotional response.