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Trailer of the Week: 'Upstream Color' Teases the Return of Sci-Fi Puzzle-Maker Shane Carruth

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 10, 2012 at 2:31PM

No matter how many times one watches Shane Carruth's 2004 debut feature "Primer," the writer-director-star's head-spinningly audacious time travel movie, it's still one of the most cryptic science fiction movies ever made. Carruth's screenplay, a hodgepodge of real science and far-reaching hypotheses, revolves around a pair of young engineers who accidentally create a time machine and grow progressively mad in their attempts to correct various actions taken by their earlier selves. The filmmaker mercilessly loads the proceedings with technical dialogue and barrels ahead without allowing viewers a moment to contemplate the big picture. Carruth, who made the movie for a mere $7,000 and won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize, assembled such a density of ideas that it was hard to imagine he had anything left to say -- and for a while, that seemed to be the case.
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This week, Indiewire kicks off a new feature, Trailer of the Week, where we select our favorite recent trailer and examine what makes it interesting to us. For this inaugural entry, Indiewire critic Eric Kohn takes a look at the first trailer for Shane Carruth's forthcoming "Upstream Color."

No matter how many times one watches Shane Carruth's 2004 debut feature "Primer," the writer-director-star's head-spinningly audacious time travel movie, it's still one of the most cryptic science fiction movies ever made. Carruth's screenplay, a hodgepodge of real science and far-reaching hypotheses, revolves around a pair of young engineers who accidentally create a time machine and grow progressively mad in their attempts to correct various actions taken by their earlier selves. The filmmaker mercilessly loads the proceedings with technical dialogue and barrels ahead without allowing viewers a moment to contemplate the big picture. Carruth, who made the movie for a mere $7,000 and won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize, assembled such a density of ideas that it was hard to imagine he had anything left to say -- and for a while, that seemed to be the case.

While "Primer" developed a steady amount of critical acclaim and cult appeal, Carruth basically dropped off the map for several years. Last year, he briefly surfaced in internet speculation about his role in developing special effects for "Looper," a very different sort of time travel odyssey, and with an executive producer credit on Amy Seimetz's sleeper hit on the film festival circuit, "Sun Don't Shine." Away from the spotlight, however, Carruth was hard at work on a follow-up, "Upstream Color," which premieres in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance next month and co-stars Seimetz and Carruth himself.

It turns out Carruth has kept busy. He has also written a screenplay for another project called "A Topiary" that has yet to move forward. While details behind that plot leaked online in 2010, "Upstream Color" has remained shrouded in mystery to all but those closely involved with the production, although the new trailer provides several indications of another beguiling drama rooted in the mounting tension between a pair of individuals. It looks like familiar Carruth territory -- which means, prepare to get confused.

Sundance's official description keeps things simple, so to speak: "A man and woman (who) are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives."

While it's virtually impossible to discern the actual narrative of "Upstream Color" from those details, the trailer delivers a collage of visuals in calculated fashion, hinting at a grimly cosmic achievement.

"I have to apologize," a voice deadpans in the trailer's opening moments, "I was born with a disfigurement and my head is made with the same material as the sun." The camera slowly pans from the image of a woman seated with her hands crossed to a jar of ice water. The ice cubes slowly spin in the light and Ralph Waldo Emerson's classic transcendentalist work "Walden" lies nearby.

From there, a series of images and sound cues generate an increasingly unnerving atmosphere. A man, initially seen from behind in two different rooms and then cranking up the volume of a stereo while wearing headphones, suddenly yanks them off his head. From that cycle of images, we see a series of hands, first entering the same bright room and then ominously hovering in front of a darting pig. A threatening Seimetz fires a gun at some undetermined target; yellow flowers shimmer against a black backdrop, and Seimetz opens her mouth in a silent scream. The trailer has reached its halfway point with only the slightest hints of events, but Carruth's frantic minor key compositions establish palpable dread then realized in a subsequent montage of startling shots -- from a series of jarring close-ups to a frantic events and abstracts visuals of microscopic life to…that poor, ailing pig.

What hath Carruth wrought? Judging by the brilliantly cryptic early peek here and some very preliminary buzz, the director has remained in tune with his commitment to a baffling experimental approach. The cameo by "Walden" might be key, if not to the actual events of the movie, then perhaps its worldly themes. The trailer provides sufficient material to kick off speculation: We can certainly expect a confounding, intense experience sure to provoke debate. But despite all these questions, one thing is certain: We no longer have to wait for the much-awaited return of Shane Carruth. He has arrived.

Watch the trailer for "Upstream Color" below:

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