Useless Genius: Upstream Color

Welcome to Useless Genius, a series on the Update devoted to things you will never get tested on! This post is about the 2013 film Upstream Color by Shane Carruth!

Believe me, the title is the least confusing thing about this movie.

Upstream Color is the second film by Shane Carruth, after his cult-hit Primer (which is even more confusing than this one, somehow). When he isn’t making indie smash hits once every ten years, Shane Carruth is an acclaimed mathematician – which actually makes sense.

I’ll be damned if this isn’t the sexiest mathematician I’ve ever seen. Source:


Upstream Color was the much-anticipated follow-up to the Sundance darling Primer, a film about a couple of scientists who accidentally discover time-travel, and rather than do anything cool with it, they use it to travel back a few hours in time and bet on the stock market, knowing how certain stocks will react. Things go awry as they usually do, and a hell of a lot of confusing stuff happens. Anyway, it’s now a cult-classic, much loved mind-bending piece of sci-fi. It goes without saying, when the film’s creator, Shane Carruth, announced he would be making a similar film, fans were excited.

Apparently Carruth’s fans are intellectual masochists.

This diagram explains how time travel works in Primer… If you need a diagram just to explain how a single aspect of the plot works, you’re in for a ride. Source:


Long story short, Upstream Color is about worms that control humans who are controlled by pigs who are controlled by orchids that are turned into drugs that are eaten by worms.


In a bit more detail, Upstream Color is about a group of people who are drugged and then infected with a roundworm, which ends up controlling them. Eventually the roundworm is extracted and placed into pigs, allowing the humans who have had the roundworm in them to feel what the new host (the pigs) feel – such as an infertile woman believing she’s pregnant because the pig that received her roundworm becomes pregnant. Eventually, the various people’s identities start to erode as they become fused with the pigs and each others, people confusing whose memory is whose. Eventually the pigs die and infect nearby orchids, which continue the cycle, allowing for more humans to be controlled.

That is the least confusing definition I can give. I am very proud of that – somehow.

The meaning behind the title: we only have some control over our lives (ie Soft Determinism/Compatibilism) Source:

Why won’t you be tested on this?

Aside from the fact that Upstream Color is a film, it can just be too confusing to comprehend at points. This compacted with the fact that the film tackles complex subjects like personal identity and is mostly told via montage sequences with minimal dialogue can make it a difficult work to test students on. Most teachers probably wouldn’t get it either.


After being drugged, the protagonist Kris is placed into a subjective state, allowing a thief to steal all her money and wipe her memory by replacing the events with passages from the novel Walden, an 1854 transcendentalist piece by Henry David Thoreau. Walden tells the autobiographical tale of Thoreau’s several years spent in the wild, describing a return to nature. This escape from the industrial modern world is a theme also detailed in Upstream Color. After Kris is infected with the roundworm, she is lured to a farm and has the worm extracted and placed into a pig. The film then follows the pigs (and later the orchids the pigs themselves infect), spending a lot of time on them and how what they experience the humans also experience. The film ends with the infected people breaking free by moving to the farm and taking care of the pigs themselves, giving them good lives so that they in turn can live happily. Or, they achieve happiness when they move away from the city and into nature, a major theme of Walden.

This is an actual quote from the film… Yeah. Source:

Of course, I don’t know about you, but if my free will was deprived by a worm living in a pig, I’d begin to question my identity – which is exactly what Shane Carruth does in Upstream Color. When the two main characters – Kris and Jeff – begin to have a relationship, they find their memories starting to meld with each other, as both of them have been infected. They frequently argue over how the other partner has ‘stolen’ their story from their childhood, recounting it as if it was their own. Other crises of identity emerge when a group of piglets are drowned in a river, causing Kris and Jeff extreme pain and loss, acting as if they’ve experienced a massive trauma, despite having nothing happen to them. Carruth questions whether one can have a personal identity if one is controlled (or is allowed to be controlled) by another.

This question of whether personal identity exists in a suggestive state is a particularly interesting one. By drugging the main character (who is female) at a party in the beginning, setting forth the chain-of-events which becomes the main story-line, Carruth conjures images and thoughts of date-rape (ie rape wherein the victim is drugged and unable to give consent). Kris, however, is not raped, but the connection still stands. By arguing that her identity corrodes because of the drug and worm, is Carruth arguing that rape victims – at least temporarily – have their identities taken from them? If so, Carruth could be arguing that rape is a far more violent crime than we already think, as it robs people of their own identity.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that personal identity can’t be accurately defined because it’s just a construct of human perception, and thus we shouldn’t care about it… Nah. Source:

Why should you watch it?

I’ll admit, despite the many things that make it so cool, Upstream Color has its downsides. Namely, pacing. Because it’s mostly told via montage-esque sequences, it can be slow, and often difficult to understand. Still, the intellectual stimulation one receives from this film is more than often to warrant admission. The questions it raises aren’t just broad, inapplicable philosophical ones, but tangible questions that apply to our own world. Should we return to nature to ‘find ourselves’? Has a rape victim had their identity taken from them? These are questions we find in our own world, and ones we should probably ask.

This is Useless Genius, a series devoted to analyzing things you will never get tested on. Let us know if there’s anything you want us to cover by contacting us through the ‘Contact Us’ page.

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