I recently saw Shane Carruth’s second film, Upstream Color, and it was exactly what I was expecting—a quiet but tremendously heartfelt, beautiful science fiction story, innovative in its ideas on many levels. What was unexpected for me, however, was the growing realization as I watched it that the core of the movie achieved what I’ve always hoped the Jurassic Park franchise would achieve by now—using scientific and technological concepts to tell progressively relevant and affecting stories about humans and animals.
Upstream Color is definitely not a Jurassic Park movie. It’s quite the opposite. Both are meant to be science fiction, but the former is an intimate drama and the latter is a series of blockbuster thrillers. Just as much as a science fiction film like Upstream Color, however, what makes the Jurassic Park movies good at their best are their ideas, and the reason the franchise fell apart after three films is that the franchise stopped pursuing them. Yes, the first Jurassic Park also has fantastic special effects, but so does Jurassic Park III, and does anyone remember that about it? The lack of purpose of Steven Spielberg’s second outing in The Lost World: Jurassic Park was clear to me even as a kid in the theater, and my experience with that movie continues to be a muddled one. Good stories are built around good ideas, and as a science fiction story, Upstream Color fulfills what the Jurassic Park movies have not done since the first film—it takes themes about humans, animals, and genetics and says something cinematically new about them. It is not the same kind of movie, but it can very much be viewed as a distinct, remarkable muse for the Jurassic Park franchise.
To say I was disappointed with the debut trailer for Jurassic World would be a huge understatement, for no other film franchise has generally wasted its potential more obviously to me than Jurassic Park, and for me, the trailer pretty much confirmed my doubts about this particular installment. What the Jurassic World trailer conveyed to me was more of what had previously led the franchise to a dead end—although I did think the monorail was cool. I am certainly on the side of those disappointed in the inaccuracy of the dinosaurs and other animals, and I am well aware of the negative effects of intentionally blurring the lines between science fiction and science fantasy—plus, a new hard science fiction movie about dinosaurs would just be awesome—but even before those things, what was most disappointing to me was the storytelling.
What I saw in the trailer was a movie trying to one up the others in the franchise by building its story around a dinosaur “bigger” and “badder” than those of the preceding films, while including a few secondary new prehistoric animals along the way. This is exactly what the last two films, especially Jurassic Park III, did, and now, even the playground, so to speak, is much bigger as well. It does seem as though additional scientific and technological ideas will be part of the story, but in the trailer, these ideas came across as either peripheral or outright superficial. Even if there are a handful of fun new action scenes, I think the movie will ultimately be missing the point, and audience investment over the long term will fall short. With, as even the trailer acknowledges, so many advances in science over the last decade alone—and with this last decade containing no Jurassic Park movies—is this the best story the filmmakers could bring to the screen for this kind of a franchise? Are audiences really still thrilled just by the existence of dinosaurs and their attacks alone?
Some of you may be thinking, “But Ian, isn’t that what Jurassic Park is all about? New levels of genetic splicing causing new spectacle and new rampages?”
I argue that the series can do much more than rehash the ideas of the first film with bigger set pieces. Jurassic Park can definitely, as John Conway put it, blow people out of the water again, much more than a chase by a mosasaur ever could, because the first film holds so much more promise than people think. A crucial bridge here is Michael Crichton’s often-overlooked sequel novel, The Lost World. The novel version of The Lost World does something very courageous that was completely removed from the movie—in addition to a fun action premise, it uses the dinosaurs crowded together on Site B to ask readers about the role of behavior in extinction. It not only uses dinosaurs to talk about another idea for its audiences, but it uses dinosaurs to talk about another thought-provoking idea. Regardless of how hard the science fiction is, great storytelling, or “fresh” storytelling for that matter, challenges an audience with its questions and themes.
Upstream Color is good storytelling about humans and animals in a world of business.
Upstream Color follows two strangers, Kris and Jeff, victims of a man (credited as “Thief”) who uses an unknown species of worm to control and steal from people. Over the course of the movie, it is revealed that when a worm matures, it is removed from the afflicted person through a surgical procedure and transferred to a pig. The afflicted person has no memory of the event, the pig is transferred to a secret pig farm, and when the pig produces piglets, the piglets are thrown into a stream. Their genetic material alters a certain species of flower growing near the stream. New worms are found living around these flowers, and these worms are ultimately harvested by the Thief.
The worm-rearing trade depicted in the film, as well as the way technology is used to implement it, provides motivation for relevant analysis in and of itself, very much in the spirit of Crichton’s Next and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, also adapted into a film starring Willem Dafoe. How is nature used in the modern world of business? What technologies are at the disposal of those businesses? However, in Upstream Color, the worm life cycle acts primarily as a premise to explore questions that result from how the victims are affected, through setting, cinematography, sound, editing, and dialogue.
Kris and Jeff develop a relationship because they subconsciously connect on an extrasensory level through their experiences with the worms. As they get to know one another, they tell each other stories about their childhoods, and get confused as to whose stories are authentically whose. Kris and Jeff also remain connected with the pigs they left behind after their transfusions. In a sequence very reminiscent of Spielberg’s E.T., the pig counterparts of Kris and Jeff are forcibly separated from one another back at the worm-pig farm, and both Kris and Jeff irrationally lash out at their respective places of work, rush home, and barricade themselves together in their bathroom until their feelings of danger diminish along with those of their pigs, also huddled together at the pig farm. At the end of the film, not able to rest until all of the victims, human and pig, can move on, Kris and Jeff assist other victims in freeing the pigs from the worm trade and create a positive home for their counterparts and their descendants. Additionally, throughout the film, a character known as the Sampler, who raises the pigs, seems able to covertly link with previous victims through the pigs.
The movie vividly conveys all of the above and more. When Kris and Jeff first bond, the pig farm is depicted quietly around them. During the worm transfusion scene, the frame very effectively focuses just as much on the eyes of the pig as it does on those of Kris. Upstream Color profoundly brings home connections and understandings between the experiences of humans, animals, and plants through a modern science fiction story in which humans manipulate nature. It inspires a lot of thought about human internal and external behavior, and it’s awesome.
Upstream Color is not everyone’s cup of tea, and the Jurassic Park movies are meant primarily to thrill us, but Jurassic Park at its core is also meant to amaze us through innovative, relevant themes, and as audience response to the franchise has demonstrated, this is what counts. What Upstream Color therefore represents to the franchise is very powerful. Think about how much three questions from Upstream Color, slightly altered, can boost Jurassic Park storytelling, while bringing it back more directly to its science fiction relevance (arguably more than Upstream Color) at the same time:
- What do dinosaurs mean?
- What do humans share with dinosaurs?
- How do humans interact with the world?
Stories in future Jurassic Park films have incredible potential, ranging from representations of human priorities in dealing with animals in the modern world, to the effects of human observation on animals and vice versa, to modern birds’ deeply-rooted connections with dinosaurs, to humans and dinosaurs solving problems together, and even to humans and dinosaurs in one another’s minds.
The first Jurassic Park film, despite its shortcomings, continues to serve as an inspiration for young people. What can the franchise inspire in future generations? Can we go beyond the first film? I think we can, and that is why I felt so deflated after watching that trailer.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic dinosaur novel The Land That Time Forgot has shown us the dangers of standing still, and from a storytelling perspective, it’s so boring—more than that, though, especially in the case of Jurassic Park, pushing our storytelling can inherently help us learn not only about our past, fossilized or cinematic, but also about our present and future, in so many fun ways. We can still be astonished by dinosaurs, to say the very least. Audience attachment to the Jurassic Park franchise is a huge first step.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Jurassic World will give us a lot more than we saw in the first trailer. Either way, Upstream Color shows how future science fiction—or science fantasy—films can keep pushing. Despite this article, I think that the industry is getting wiser and becoming more receptive to more substantial ideas, if for no other reason than necessity. At one point in time, even Spielberg may not have been able to overcome the hurdles standing in the way of this incredible franchise, but I think that future filmmakers, of equal or greater courage and vision, just might.