★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Leigh Whannell
An ambitious Sci-fi action thriller that learns all the right lessons from its precedent source material. Upgrade is what the Robocop reboot should have been. It’s a smart, violent, and kinetic parable of the risks of merging flesh with technology.
Woohoo! This is a crowd pleaser! The gathered audience packed the Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans for a much anticpated showing at the Overlook Film Festival. First things first, Upgrade is horror adjacent. It’s not a straight-up horror movie. I’d suggest it’s 50% action 40% sci-fi 10% horror. IMDB lists it as Action/Comedy/Horror and fails to list Sci-Fi… so take that for what it’s worth. That is not to take away the achievement that Whannell has pulled off. Whannell was being awarded as the Overlook Festival’s 2018 Visionary award, which was established to honor a contemporary horror figure or company elevating the genre, while fostering the community by providing opportunities for new talent to thrive. Whannell is best known for his work as an actor and writer in the Saw and Insidious franchises. Upgrade is the second feature film he has directed, after Insidious: The Last Key, which was released earlier this year. After this, I’m guessing we’re getting many more.
Upgrade is a near future take on where things may go if we let technology take us there. It’s a wonderful thing, and a terrifying idea, a proud trope for science fiction. Automated cars, digitally sensitive everything, and drones fill the sky. Logan Marshall-Green is Grey Trace, a man who still prefers to work on old Pontiac Firebirds, a man who trusts his hands more than the technology surrounding him. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is a cybernetics designer and has a very different take on the role of technology. The two of them are invited to meet with a young technical wunderkind, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) who is showing Grey and Asha STEM, the chip of the future. Grey is dubious about the whole newfangled technology, and as he and Asha are being taken home in their automated car, the car gets overridden, and the two are hijacked. A gang of thugs, with guns embedded in their arms, surrounds the couple, killing Asha, and leaving Grey paralyzed. No explanation, no rationale. (But don’t worry… we’ll get there.)
Grey is nursed back to health by his mother, and I would like to recognize that in a role that in many movies would be a throwaway supporting role, I really appreciated how Grey’s mother is portrayed in this movie. She’s there for him, unconditionally. It’s a small role, but it’s devoid of the cliches of movies like this. There’s no arguing or frustrations, just duty and love. (Awww) He is also supported by a series of robotic arms (Asha’s firm’s creations) that help him with his medications. And he has a fancy wheelchair. But he’s horribly depressed and tries to over-medicate his way into killing himself. In the hospital, he is approached by Eron, who offers him the use of the STEM chip which will reconnect his severed nervous system… and more! He agrees to the implant, which is super hush-hush, and indeed, there is a remarkable recovery. Grey walks. It’s a medical miracle, right?
Soon, he determines that the STEM chip can talk to him, and the chip suggests that they go out and get some justice! The cops are also hunting for the answers, but they are moving far too slow for Grey’s desires. Grey and STEM eventually are able to identify one of the thugs, and Grey decides to pay him a visit. While searching the thug’s apartment for clues, the thug returns home (naturally) and the thug is thoroughly thrashing Grey around the living room when STEM suggests that Grey kicks in the upgrade. (There’s your title!) Enter Grey the kung-fu killing machine! STEM is doing all the work, and Grey’s brain is a witness to mass destruction. Points to Marshall-Green for his motions after he gets the STEM chip, his movements are suitably artificial and stiff, and yet lightning quick when necessary. The fight choreography utilized some clever tracking mechanisms, and the flow of the fight scenes are wild, fluid, and comprehensible. Hollywood take note!
The remainder of the second and third acts involve Grey trying to find out who his would-be killers are, how to avoid the police finding out about his secret recovery, and most importantly the story asks… who is really in control of Grey’s body? It is a fantastic and dynamic trip that Whannell takes us on. The horror comes in the violence. The trailer will give you an idea of how brutal the fights get. Also, there are some dark twists to this film, that convey something sinister going on, and that has a bit of a horror bent, but again… more sci-fi than horror. The audience roared at times, and this will be a movie to see in a packed house, as I do hope it gets the chance to. Start the buzz people!
In his acceptance of the award, he had commented that he was trying to create a movie with the freedom of a low-budget indie picture, but has the production values of a tentpole action movie. He had used Cameron’s The Terminator as a template for how he wanted this picture to work, which was a movie that maximized its modest budget to create a real powerhouse of a production. I would suggest that this movie has a strong thematic DNA tie to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. Other Strong influences seem to be The Matrix, The Raid, and Blade Runner 2049. This is a cyberpunk movie, which is a genre that seems to have disappeared after the 1990’s, which may be a testament to the state of our current technology that the idea of plugging a jack into your skull is pointless if you have a good smart phone at your disposal with Wiki on it. William Gibson would be proud! Blumhouse has upped the budget for this film, but in its soul, it is still an indie picture. The exploration of the infusion of technology to the human body is a time-honored trope, and this Upgrade is a worthy successor to the top of the sci-fi action fare.
Upgrade is Rated R and will be released on June 1, 2018.
If you are as interested in the process of moviemaking like I am, I managed to get some of Whannel’s Q&A session recorded here: