Upgrade review - gory thrill ride needs a bit of fine-tuning
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Verdict: An entertaining stepping stone in Whannell's journey to future midnight movie icon.
Seasoned horror fans will already be familiar with the name Leigh Whannell. Before debuting his directing chops with 2015’s Insidious 3 he was a frequent collaborator with James Wan, starring in and writing films such as Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010).
With Upgrade the actor-writer-turned-director trades in supernatural for sci-fi, taking us to a world dominated by advanced technology. With it we see the capitalist future Whannell envisions. Microphones and police drones everywhere; touch-screen homes and cars operated by voice activation. It allows for some sleek and stunning production design. Whannell has a keen eye for immersive world-building, even if it is a dripping reminder of our growing reliance on technology.
Our protagonist, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), is a tech-sceptic himself. He works as a stay-at-home mechanic, while his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works for a company that deals with the augmentation of humans and computers. But things can't stay peachy for long in this hi-tech dystopia. While out for a drive (or rather, car sex on autopilot), the couple fall victim to a brutal mugging. Grey makes it out, though paralysed from the neck down. Asha doesn't. Several months pass and Grey becomes suicidal, seeing nothing left worth living for. That is, until a techie wunderkind named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson, who appears to be channeling Dane Dehaan) offers help in the form of an AI chip called STEM.
STEM is essentially HAL from 2001, if HAL was implanted in your spine rather than your surroundings. Though Eron believes it should only restore motor functions - and it does - STEM is in fact able to both communicate with and even control Grey. While initially freaked out, Grey soon realises STEM can be used as a way to take revenge on his wife’s killers. This leads to some impressive fight sequences wherein the camera remains fixed on Grey while still following his killing-machine movements. If less bloody scenes had been treated with the same amount of creative finesse, we may have been looking at a future midnight classic.
That’s not to say that Upgrade won’t find a following. Whannell’s script is coated in tongue-in-cheek humour, most of it coming from a very game Marshall-Green. Though Grey’s situation is treated with the gravitas you can expect from a body horror based on revenge, the film never gets too lost in its own fantasy to stop having fun. But again, it fails to strike the right balance. The constant wrestling between gory violence and cheesy quips leaves the tone muddled. Are we to feel uneasiness at Grey’s descent into the horrific ramifications of bodily AI, or are we to find it as silly as he does?
But the biggest question remains, and that is what the film has to say about the disability of its main character. When Grey is first implanted with STEM, for instance, Eron tells him that he “can start living again”. Because life wasn’t possible without the use of his limbs? It’s rare for a mainstream film to have a disabled character in the spotlight; rarer still when it isn’t Oscar bait fodder for an abled-bodied audience. The story of a person finding a ‘cured’ for their disability is an age-old tale in Hollywood. Whannell may not exactly present STEM as an ideal 'cure', but even the thought that one is necessary is a trope to be put to bed.
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