I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Upgrade

Until now, Leigh Whannell has seemed like James Wan’s sidekick. I guess technically he’s the creator of SAW, because he wrote the short film, but he’s mainly known for co-writing the first three SAWs, DEAD SILENCE and all the INSIDIOUSes. And then he directed INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY CHAPTER THREE. But did you know he had it in him to go off on his own and write and direct a ferocious low budget cyberpunk action thriller? Man, why didn’t you tell me?

Logan Marshall-Green (from THE INVITATION and Quarry, but I’ll always think of him as “I just want answers, baby” from PROMETHEUS) stars as Grey Trace, a simple mechanic who loves listening to Howlin’ Wolf records in the garage and working on his Firebird even though he lives in a near future with self-driving cars and cyber implants and shit. (Yeah, I know. But at least they don’t say out loud that he’s an analog man in a digital world. They just show you visually and then move on.)

Then one night mysterious criminals shoot him and his wife (Melanie Vallejo, the Blue Ranger on Power Rangers Mystic Force), leaving him paralyzed and her dead. Though his house is set up with some pretty sweet robot arms that can prepare food for him, he’s miserable and suicidal without his wife or the ability to work with his hands.

Then one of his clients, weirdo prodigy computer mogul Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson, NEED FOR SPEED), who looks like Dane DeHaan cosplaying David Bowie circa “Let’s Dance,” comes to offer him some experimental technology. It’s a micro-computer implant called STEM that will communicate with his brain and make him walk again. But experimenting on humans like this is still illegal, so he has to keep it a secret. That’s kind of a bummer, but it’s better than nothing.

And STEM does more than advertised. It not only allows Grey to move again but speaks to him (voice of Simon Maiden, SON OF THE MASK), and next thing you know its using its computer brain and ability to interface with other technology to help him go over surveillance footage of the attack and find clues to help him track down his attackers. And when he goes to a guy’s house and starts to get the shit beat out of him he gives STEM permission to take the controls. And STEM knows how to make him kick ass!

So it’s kind of like DEATH WISH II meets M.A.N.T.I.S. Just like M.A.N.T.I.S. he’s a quadriplegic who uses his paralysis as an alibi while sneaking out using experimental technology to walk and fight. The difference is that M.A.N.T.I.S. pulls a Batman and fights crime, whereas this guy specifically seeks the violent degenerates who killed his wife. So that’s the DEATH WISH II part.

But it also subverts that template because he’s not seeking revenge. Going after them isn’t even his idea, he just kinda goes along with it. That first time he gets in a fight it’s true self defense and he’s horrified that STEM makes him kill the guy. There are things he can’t stomach to do himself, but he gives STEM permission, so he’s culpable. (I think there’s a parallel there to the many brutal things that we benefit from but stay distanced from, from war to sweat shops to factory farms. Or even just to the use of drones in combat. Grey literally has blood on his hands but he tells himself STEM is responsible.)

Hats off to fight choreographer and stunt double Chris Weir (Romper Stomper tv series [apparently there is a Romper Stomper tv series]) for coming up with the jagged AI fighting style that’s about short, efficient movements, devoid of human impulses like the vanity to do cool poses or the restraint to not slice halfway through a guy’s head. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio (JUNGLE) emphasize the non-human origin of the violence with machine-like camera moves flipping alongside Grey or a victim who he tosses across the room. Marshall-Greene gives a great, blackly humorous physical performance, with his body moving like a weird machine while his face looks horrified and surprised. It really seems like he’s being taken on a ride against his will.

That’s both the fun and the horror of it. He has this machine that can do amazing things, but he has to submit to it, allow it to use his body as its own, and he has to be inside it with no control. (Weirdly this seems to be what the upcoming Tom Hardy movie VENOM is about too, and I think we’ve all noticed how much Marshall-Green looks like Tom Hardy.)

This escalating vigilante crusade happens in a setting full of cool sci-fi concepts, but light on the sort of sleek digital effects that almost all movies have now. This is more like the first TERMINATOR, or an episode of Max Headroom. There’s not much about it that doesn’t seem like it could’ve been made in the ’80s. It’s mostly shot on location in normal, low rent neighborhoods, but with little touches like police cars with a different type of lights, or a condemned building littered with glow sticks instead of syringes.

There are still normal action/crime movie things like the tough detective (Betty Gabriel, Georgina from GET OUT) who’s keeping him updated on the search for the killer, or the bar full of scary punks who will take him into the back room to try to kill him. The recent remake of DEATH WISH has those things too, but it doesn’t have a guy who loads bullets into his arm and fires them out of his hand, or dead bodies where you can plug into the cornea to rewind through their memories.

It seems like they can do just about anything with computers now, but they can’t solve all of humanity’s problems. Nobody ever says anything about it, but the fateful attack happens after their automated car crashes into a tent city. Life is not great for everyone.

Weird little detail I noticed: Detective Cortez wears a necklace of a sideways cross. Not right side up, not upside down, but sideways. I’ve never seen that before and I wonder what it means.

It’s a very reasonable extrapolation of current technological trends without feeling like a cautionary tale. It seems too matter-of-fact for that. The surveillance state (cops can easily track you with footage from overhead drones) is very matter-of-fact and clearly well-intended – the frustration is not that it’s invading your privacy, but that the criminals know how to evade it. And the tech that can make Grey walk again is clearly a miracle, but nobody bothers to think through the consequences until it’s too late. Everything snowballs.

From what I’ve read, UPGRADE is not expected to do well enough for a sequel, which is too bad, because I’d love to see the T2 to its TERMINATOR. But it’s a perfectly fine self-contained story and I recommend seeing it with an audience if you have the chance. Whannell takes a bit of time getting the pieces in place, but once it gets cracking it’s a real thrill ride. STEM always goes too far, eliciting gasps, laughter, applause and a few scolding “that’s disgusting”s from my crowd. I’m not sure they liked it as much as I did, but they definitely reacted.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 6th, 2018 at 10:49 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Upgrade”

  1. I’ve seen the sideways cross necklaces before, so it’s a thing. I don’t know its significance, but it’s a thing.

  2. I thought it was just stuck in that position

  3. This doesn’T seem to have a German release date yet, but when it does, I wonder what it will be called, because THE PREDATOR will run here as PREDATOR: UPGRADE

  4. Not PREDATOR: BACK IN BLACK or PREDATOR: BLACK & DEKKER? What a lost opportunity. The German distributor could at least honor tradition and call it FRANKENSTEIN: UPGRADE.

  5. He didn’t direct THE LAST KEY, he only wrote it.

  6. Vern – Dan Owen is right. Whannell directed Insidious Chapter 3

  7. Saw this yesterday night. My expectations were modestly low, and I rather enjoyed it despite myself. I don’t know why, my mind kept going back to the Michael Crichton sci-fi actioner RUNAWAY while watching the movie. Maybe it had something to do with the affordable near-future setting, the techno-sleuthing police, and the subjective camera movement. The gory, violent bits elicited the appropriate responses from the audience I saw it with.

    I would say that I only have two major complaints about the film. First, the aural opening tiitle credits with the waveform pattern of the spoken credits appearing on-screen. Was it their attempt to bring the audience into the world of the film? Like, it was a futuristic story but not far-future. The concept was a little too abstract for me.

    My other complaint is about the reveal of the villain at the end of the film. It only raises more questions than answers and affirms the fears the protagonist has in the beginning of the film. A number of people also walked out of the cinema during the fakeout at the end, so I’m guessing there’s a small percentage of folks who saw this movie and believe it ended in the hackiest way possible.

    Everything else was tolerable. Even the baddies and their whole eyeball roll-inducing “upgraded” mumbo jumbo. As it stands, it’ll probably become yet another one of my guilty pleasures. In a weird way, watching this film now has me interested in seeing HOTEL ARTEMIS. If “Support mid-budget genre films opening in the summer!” hasn’t yet become a rallying cry, then maybe this will be the year.

  8. Vern, you see The Mule or Cooties? Whannell is pretty solid but I get how it could seem he’s slowly establishing himself since his biggest hits were franchises with Wan. He stayed to write two more Saws while Wan started branching out.

  9. Yeah, this was a good one. So nice to be able to see something even the slightest bit disreputable in the movie theater.

    My only beef is the whole “Cop seems to care more about the person killing murderers than the murderers themselves” trope. I just don’t really buy it. Cops prioritize. We all know this. Yet we’re expected to believe that the same police department we’re always told is too understaffed and overworked to solve murders is willing to work nights (does she get OT for that because I hear that’s hard for cops to authorized) to catch the guy who she suspects is killing known felons. I just don’t think that’s how cops operate. They might suspect something’s up but I have a hard time thinking they’d care enough to put in that extra mile.

  10. For whatever reason, it really skeeves me out when someone uses the word “baby” as a pet name for their girlfriend. Also, when I saw a preview for this movie, I legit thought it was starring Tom Hardy. That’s all I got.

  11. Mr M, whenever something like this happens in a movie, my thinking behind it is always that they of course SHOULDN’T give a fuck about a killer killer, but most of the time the vigilantes happen to go fucking hyperkill on them (for our entertainment). And if they would know for sure that the vigilante would just kill some creeps in their own house, they wouldn’t care, but of course they have to expect that one day they kill some innocent bystanders or set up a bomb in a kindergarten to kill some gang boss who picks up his son.

    And RE: “Baby”, yeah I don’t get this either. I’m not gonna say that people who use that as a nickname for their loved one are pedophile, but babies are loud, sticky and smelly. There is a reason why we say “Don’t act like a baby”!

  12. I just have a hard time reconciling the attitude of these movie cops who are willing to spend days of their free time stalking a traumatized crime victim on the off chance he did the world a favor and executed a murderer with the attitude of the real cops I know, which is they punch in, do their job, and go home to their families with a bemused detachment to all the carnage they saw go down that day. That’s not even counting all the awful cops you read about who barely give a shit when somebody from the lower classes (like the kind of “creeps” you find in a vigilante movie) get killed. I see cops having more of a “Maybe he did it but what am I gonna do about it? I got 45 other cases on my desk and this one with all the dead criminals can easily be chalked up to gang warfare and forgotten” attitude about stuff like this. It happens all the time in cases not involving vigilantes. If some evidence turns up, of course they’ll make the arrest. But all this extracurricular activity strikes me as wrong, and it all just feels very warmed-over when filmmakers still use that subplot. Are we supposed to be on the cop’s side? Because we’re not. We never will be. If the cop was a viable character we could respect, we wouldn’t be watching a vigilante movie.

  13. Best movie of 2018 so far. Flawed yet awesome. It reminded me of early Cronenberg (without the sex) and Demon Seed (without the sex). My audience gasped, too, at the sudden graphic violence, which was fun. I was the only one who audibly chuckled at J WAN being clearly visible on the buzzer panel outside the hacker’s apartment building. (Is Whannell suggesting his boy has gone slumming?) I also loved the concept of a VR crack house. Brilliant, and a definitely the other side of VR, re: Ready Player One. I do hope there is a sequel, as this obviously has elements of intended franchise/universe-building aspirations given the reference to an underground rebellious group (“we can’t let them win”) and the shadowy entity that created the other Upgraded.

  14. Is it only men calling women “baby” that you guys don’t like? Just curious. I actually like being called baby and often use it on boyfriends and have never been told they don’t like it. Intellectually, it should be skeevy, but it’s never bothered me.

  15. Yeah, I thought it was Tom Hardy as well.

    Re: “baby”. I like it. I like using it and I like being called it. It feels very affectionate to me, not condescending at all.

  16. The turning point in my new relationship was about a month in, when I unconsciously called her “baby”. It felt natural. She liked it and told me so. That’s when I knew I was going to marry her someday.

    Other variations on “baby” I use – “baby-doll”, and our most-used term of affection for each other, “babe”.

    All aboard the Baby Train.

  17. Saw the trailer for this and was very impressed with how real it’s future looks.

    Part of what’s nice about living in the times we live in is filmmakers now have more of a real idea of what “the future” will look like, remember in the past whenever a movie was set in the future almost EVERYTHING had to be “futuristic” in some usually ridiculous way.

    Now we know that the future is something more subtle.

  18. I didn’t notice Wan’s name, but I noticed the graffiti of Billy the puppet from SAW.

    I can accept the detective subplot because she’s been talking with him and then it becomes obvious so she’s morally obligated to look into it. Also she just has to be curious how the fuck he’s doing it.

  19. Yeah, it’s not a deal breaker in this case. I can see how mere curiosity could be her motivation. It’s more just the trope in general. You know how sometimes you see the first scene of what you know will be a subplot you’ve seen a thousand times before and you just wish the movie would skip it and do something else instead? That’s this subplot.

  20. After the brilliance of UPGRADE last week, and this week’s effective, atmospheric slow-burn that is HEREDITARY and the Carpenter-like, Assault on Precinct 13ish HOTEL ARTEMIS, this is shaping up to be a pretty good summer for typically disreputable genre fare.

  21. RE: baby

    I think ‘daddy’ is a lot creepier than ‘baby’. I call my wife baby, sweetie, honey, beba, and woman. She will call me beba, honey, and sexy man. I would never tolerate being called daddy by her in an intimate sort of way. Too incestuous sounding. JMO.

  22. Vinnie has a point. Why are all these weird little exploitationy movies coming out now, when the summer season is in full swing? There’s been jack shit on that front all year and now they all decide to pile up and compete with each other, not to mention with all the Big Gulp cup movies. What’s the thinking there? You think the kids are gonna be lining up to see matinees of HOTEL ARTEMIS? That would be great, because I would prefer to entrust the world to a generation that developed good taste like that at such a young age, but I think I gotta doubt the marketing algorithm on this one.

    In conclusion, go see HOTEL ARTEMIS. It is awesome. Do it for the kids.

  23. Mr. M, you saw and like Hotel Artimis?

    I saw this today thinking it would be the last chance to see it and then my friend got mad that I didn’t wait for him. Turns out I could have. I liked it a lot but then it had

    SPOILERS

    Another depressing ending where the bad guy won. I’m tired of all this cynicism in genre movies these days.

  24. I don’t wanna freak anyone out, but my pet name for my GF is… Kiddo.

    Kiddo’s totally age appropriate for me, it’s just that she’s 10 years younger than the woman I dated before her (who was, in turn, 4 years older than me).

    I also call her babe, baby and the like. In fact, she kinda hates it when I call her by her actual name.

  25. Sterny: Yeah, I didn’t think it quite stuck the landing (Why is she still wandering out into the riot-filled city when she sees the hotel sign light up again? I think they muddled up the thematic resolution with that shot) but I’m curious as to why you think it’s a story where the bad guy wins. SPOILERS: All the bad (or even just unpleasant) guys die (generally pretty painfully) and most of the “good” guys live. One even becomes a millionaire and gets to run off and start a new life. I don’t think it’s a cynical ending. It’s an ending where evil isn’t defeated, because evil can’t really be defeated, only constantly and persistently battled. And that’s what Foster’s character represents: the dogged and unglamorous fight to just barely beat back the ever-rising tide of awfulness. It’s not rainbows and sunshine but it’s still about hope and selflessness and compassion.

  26. I saw Upgrade and Hotel Artemis today as a double feature. Enjoyed both, but Upgrade is definitely a cut above. Loved the ending and the way it played as a meta take on DOA. The first half-hour is a bit rough, but it builds and builds. And the lead performance, wowza! Great physical control and facial work. I really believed his mind and body were two distinct entities. The whirring sound effects were a risky choice that could have come off as too cheesy, but they mix them low enough that the effect is almost subliminal, adding to the weirdness. The film is generally well directed, but the car crash, car chase, and especially the first moment when the hero relearns to walk all felt like they were missing Key shots. The first two are issues of budget, I’m sure. But when he stands up… we never see him stand up! The swelling score was way over the top in that bit, too. Also, as others mentioned, They spend too much time on the detective hunting the hero subplot, instead of giving any sense of logic to the antagonist thugs. Those issues aside, this is a solid little bit of nastiness that really deserves a sequel that box office dictates we’ll never see.

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