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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 38
A Geek of a Different Color

Although geek movies have pervaded the box office in recent years (and, with the upcoming release of such blockbusters as Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Elysium, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the next three months alone, show no sign of stopping), movies made by genuine visionaries are in short supply. It's not that Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers or Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight aren't great movies, or that there aren't great things in, say, Jon Favreau's Iron Man, but when it comes to daring, truly original directors tackling subject matter that might appeal to science fiction fans more steeped in literature than visual media, few of even the best directors appear up to the challenge. Even when one views the best work since the geek picture came of age in 2008, genuine masterpieces that might stand as art number very few -- Nolan's Inception, Gareth Edwards's Monsters, maybe Duncan Jones's Moon -- with the number gifted directors even smaller.

Several years ago I mentioned Nolan as one of those potential visionaries, a Kubrick of science fiction cinema. And with cause. His work on The Prestige was extraordinary. Moreover, the release of Inception surprised a number of people, not least of which because it was that rarest of entities: a blockbuster movie that could also play to an art-house crowd. My opinion of the movie lessened somewhat with a recent rewatch, but only slightly; Ellen Page's character, for example, seems tacked on. Nonetheless, I placed Nolan at the forefront of geek cinema and, as Inception gave way to disappointing but not uninteresting The Dark Knight Rises, kept him there, because his vision still felt singular and uncompromising. He may remain if his upcoming Interstellar, which appears to use Kip Thorne's book Black Holes and Time Warps as its nodal point, proves worthwhile.

Iron Man Man of Steel Inception

When I provided that assessment, I perhaps gave short shrift to the director of one of the best, if not the best, science fiction movie of the past ten years: Shane Carruth, who turned in the twisty time travel tale Primer in 2004. The exclusion, while premature, was understandable; after all, he had only made one movie -- an incredible one at that -- and secrecy shrouded his second proposed feature, A Topiary. Directors with more releases garner more attention and command more criticism regardless of quality (from J.J. Abrams on one end of the spectrum to Zack Snyder on the other), which might be unfair. Consider that many readers cite Harper Lee as one of America's greatest writers based on her only novel, the great To Kill a Mockingbird. Likewise, Ralph Ellison greatest contribution to American letters was Invisible Man, the only novel published during his lifetime. In science fiction, Walter M. Miller, Jr. completed only novel before his death, the classic A Canticle for Lebowitz.

In this light, I should not have written off Carruth, especially when one considers Primer's importance to science fiction.

I don't remember where I first heard of Primer, but I remember hearing through the skiffy grapevine that Ted Chiang, author of such stories as "The Story of Your Life" and "Tower of Babylon," spoke highly of it. Fellow Turkey Citizen Lawrence Person raved about it. Others whose opinions I trusted called it the best science fiction movie of the year, which was all the more remarkable considering its meager budget. A thoughtful time travel movie that wreaked havoc with causality on a budget that only barely broke four digits? It sounded implausible.

Yet Primer proved to be all of those things. I remember playing it repeatedly on my newly acquired DVD player after purchasing a copy I found at Fry's. After dozens of viewings, I still wasn't sure I followed all of the permutations it spins off in its under-90-minute running time.

It's fair to say I became a little obsessed with it. And I wasn't alone; as the years passed, I ran into others who spoke as highly of it. Even the great web comic xkcd mentioned it in a feature devoted to film timelines, showing its disruption of cause and effect as a hopeless tangle. This was an overstatement -- the movie does make sense, though you have to pay attention -- but it illustrated the inherent geek pleasures in its subject matter.

As others discovered Primer, several of us began to ask the obvious question: what was next for Shane Carruth? Did he have a sequel in mind? Another mind-blowing science fiction picture? Nobody knew, and inquiries met with silence. What was A Topiary, the movie announced as his follow-up? As late as 2010, not even io9 had a clue.

Which made 2013's Upstream Color, his second movie, a surprise... the first of many.

Upstream Color Primer

Like the footage of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, footage appeared on YouTube, all of it intriguing and compelling, but none of it offered much clue as to what it was about. Plot descriptions sounded vague, despite the tinge of metaphysics. The accompanying music struck remarkable notes... but still illuminated nothing. Maybe it was science fiction... but maybe it was a thriller. Or maybe it was a horror movie... or a slice-of-life picturesque.

What the hell was it?

When I finally caught a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse one evening, I looked at my viewing as an experiment. The pre-show ran clips of David Lynch's Inland Empire, David Cronenberg's Stereo, and Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, which gave me an idea of the mindset I would need in order to appreciate Upstream Color.

Then the lights went down.

As I left the theater, I wasn't sure what I had just seen. Days afterward, I couldn't even say if I liked it.

Only later did I realize that Carruth had done something I always asked of filmmakers, but never dared believe would actually do: he did something so different from his previous work, that it left me completely unprepared. Primer blended the conventions of the independent film with Robert Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps," with remarkable results. Upstream Color, by contrast, blended a meditation on substance abuse (maybe), or the cycles of life (maybe), or... something else, with Bradburyesque poetry. It was a secular, but still spiritual, version of Terence Malick's The Tree of Life.

Maybe.

Upstream Color no doubt will be lost amid the blockbuster movies playing this summer. It certainly won't rake in the cash that Shane Black's Iron Man 3 has already earned overseas, days before its American release, and never will see the size of the audience of fare like Elysium. And yet, almost a week after I watched it, I still have not gotten its images out of my mind. Would that more popular geek movies could do the same.

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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