(This review originally ran during our coverage of the SXSW Film Festival. Upgrade is in theaters today.)
Leigh Whannell’s latest film Upgrade is one of the most strikingly invigorated sci-fi watches I’ve been awestruck by in quite some time. I’m talking *hard* sci-fi, with callbacks to anything from eXistenZ to The Matrix to Minority Report. Whannell customizes an “efficient” future not so far from our own, where self-driving Loop Dash vehicles chauffeur around bioengineered super-beings and pizzas aren’t ordered, they’re printed. It’s the kind of SmartHouse, techno-takeover world that Apple users dream of, blackened and revenge-ified by Whannell’s oddly apt Her meets Weekend At Bernie’s scramble – with way more splattered blood and guts.
Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, an “analog” mechanic who loves tinkering with “relic” muscle cars while girlfriend Asha’s (Melanie Vallejo) company produces new-age advancements. He scoffs at man’s dependence on robotic juicer arms and tablet tables, even in front of a Steve-Jobs-level client named Eron Vessel (Harrison Gilbertson). Grey’s but a simple man who likes the feel of grease between his fingers – but then everything changes. While being “driven” home from Eron’s secretive home, Grey and Asha crash in a somersault wreck. Asha is then assassinated by a hit squad, Grey’s left paralyzed and Eron holds the only cure – a “Stem” chip implant that could reactivate Grey’s atrophying muscles (with unexpected side effects).
What’s not revealed is that Stem has a mind and voice of its own (provided by Simon Maiden). Grey hears this calm automaton “partner” inside his own head, like a personal Siri wired to the user’s limbs, optics and nerves. Stem only comprehends in binary and facts, as opposed to Grey’s unpredictable human mannerisms – but together they’re a Kit/Knight Rider sort of team. Grey “in control” until permitting Stem’s automatic override, which then switches to fully-robotic programs maneuvered with precisely calculated perfection.
If Grey misses a crime scene detail, Stem notices it. If Grey is getting the snot kicked out of him, Stem initiates a “master ninja” protocol complete with gravity-defying dodges. Whannell’s *gruesome* Saw influences are used to exemplify how coldly Stem feels about ending a human life – his first kitchen knife “Chelsea Grin” a *major* hoot-and-holler moment – as these brawler sequences become a most endearing John–Wick-ish battle brag. Grey completely out of control, humorously wincing in disbelief as his martial arts movements jump from first-day beginner to Bruce Lee with superbrain directives. Always along for the ride, increasingly numbed by the brutalization.
What impresses most is not unhinged jaws and broken arm-gun headshots (however rad these grisly accents are), but a complete transplantation into Whannell’s future-porn dystopia. Blocky, modern-art smoothness favors architecture that’s both flatly sterilized and obsessed with nature as mere decoration. Eron’s walkways are lined with auburn shrubbery while his desk is a hanging driftwood hunk – our first interaction with the Jared-Leto-wannabe shows him three dimensionally interacting with a *literal* puffy cloud (yes, his “Cloud” database). It’s this meditative juxtaposition of Earth’s natural liveliness being novelized inside online worlds, given how Eron barely even leaves his underground dwelling. Man showing signs of enslavement by digitization, playing almost like an early WALL-E tale.
I’d be baffled to learn what kind of budget Upgrade was granted because it’d undoubtedly be less than what Whannel’s team makes you assume. His dusty biker bar Old Bones strung with dangling remains, polygonal auto-cars zoom like some Bruce Wayne pet-project, color-drenched cinematography by Stefan Duscio paints my favorite kind of Nicolas Winding Refn hue saturation – set design seamlessly constructs a most believable, visually engulfing utopia. Scenic skyscraper pans immediately reminded of Blomkamp-esque cityscape sketching (Elysium), while the dulled surroundings of interactive glass surfaces contrast against the personality of Grey’s parts-riddled garage. Human versus computer, even when landscaping a world less ordinary that ensnares and immerses.
Whannell’s representation of Grey favors that of a part-man, part-machine hybrid. Stem, this crawly little chip that grants a desperate man superhuman powers simply by providing override commands – the camera becoming more rigid and calculated once Stem starts doling out limb-snapping deaths. Where static shots and free-moving techniques frame human Grey, views become disoriented and precisely locked on Stem-Grey in fits of rage-combat. Every aspect of Whannell’s filmmaking palette is used to further this distinction between Grey the person and Grey the supercomputer, and while some sequences can become a bit dizzying, it’s all with thematic intent. To tell a story about Grey losing control even though his body only becomes more finely-tuned.
These beneficial cinematic details would be lost without performance sustainability, and Green does not squander opportunity. As pre-accident Grey, he’s the speculative simpleton who’d rather share experiences with his wife than let some program run everything. Pre-surgery, he’s the depressed, grief-stricken wheelchair roller who can’t even properly commit suicide because of machine safety protocols (medication injector calls 911). Post-surgery, Green talks to himself and (barely) stomachs super-violent outbursts with a very genre-heavy regard that’s both vengefully rewarding and comically inclined. His daily movements capture mechanical stiffness while fight choreography is as swift as Neo (with editing help). That first thug encounter where Stem flashes what he’s capable of? Green *nails* the “autopilot bystander” vibe as he begs his adversary to just “stay down,” knowing Stem will not stop until forfeit or death is achieved.
I mean, audiences so frequently sleep on the ever-talented Logan Marshall-Green – but if any movie can change that, Upgrade has that power.
There’s so much more I want to talk about, but since this is a festival review, let me just hit on a few final notes like how Betty Gabriel is well on her way to becoming a household name (playing Det. Cortez here) and the true power of Whannell’s effects team. Gabriel fits into precinct form with the reserve and dedication of a beat-cop who still likes to get her hands dirty (“analog”). And the effects work? Fleshy chunks are cut away to reveal copper wiring strung through muscle tissue like some cyborg Frankenstein, gun “upgrades” running through forearms for militia-first subjects. Two very different aspects of the film playing an equal part to “level-up” what could have been another coded sci-fi repeat (drones, nanobots and all).
After watching Upgrade, it’s hard to tell who I enjoy more – Leigh Whannell “The Writer” or Leigh Whannell “The Director.” Whannell “The Writer” so meticulously plots his stories and grants them life through minute but humanizing details (with popcorn-geared sentiments). Whannell “The Director” effortlessly manufactures genuine cinematic worlds for his characters to play in, turning stories into projected escapes that pull us deeper and deeper into the screen. Never once during my watch of Upgrade did I lose interest in Grey’s breakdown and rebuild, which – as you can expect – is vastly more complex than some shoot-em-up retribution. This midnight amalgamation of science fiction paranoia and gritty action face-bashing is energized, high-voltage hysteria – a goddamn sensational genre upload that, for my money, puts Whannell in the same conversations of accomplished feature directors as his buddy James Wan.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10