Running Time: 100 minutes
Written & directed by: Leigh Whannell
Featuring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, and Harrison Gilbertson
Stem: “It does not make sense that humans deliberately malfunction.”
Grey Trace: “Yeah, that’s because your memories are filled with ones and zeros, pal, and our memories are filled with every fuck-up we’ve ever made.”
I have said before but the past ten years has been a bonanza for genre movies, especially within horror, not only does there seem to be more produced than ever before, especially with the advent of cheap film making equipment, more quality filmmakers entering the genre as well as more production companies realising there is money to be made with the increase in online streaming services. This is where Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company has entered the market finding a cost/revenue model that works for them, partnering with a major distribution partner in Paramount and not limiting itself to theatrical projects, but also partnering with Netflix as well as now creating genre television in their first project “The Purge” (2018). In fact this year Blumhouse will have released eighteen movies over a variety of mediums the most ever, including their Oscar hopeful Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), a belter of a non genre film. One of this years releases arrives on DVD/Blu-ray this week, that being “Upgrade” (2018) something of a miss at the box office which is a first considering Blumhouse’s track record as well as payback for writer Leigh Whannell who makes his directorial debut after writing some of Blumhouses biggest hits, helping establishing their brand early on.
There is no doubt that Leigh Whannell has serious genre credentials with writing the “Saw” (2003-present) and “Insidious” (2010-present) franchises, these have met with big box office as well as sometimes critical success. Of course he has never directed a movie and after all the years spent handing his work over to others obviously wanted to be in control of one of his own scripts. Whilst I have no doubt that Whannell is a talented writer I do find that his scripts do start off well but tend to get more generic as they head towards their inevitable conclusion. His work is at its best when he has a talented as well as visionary director who is able to transcend the source material, which is why with his series of movies they each get lesser in quality as the directors change and become more workmanlike. In “Upgrade” what starts out as an interesting idea quickly dissolves into what must be called a routine thriller with horror and sci-fi aspects, sure it moves along at a good pace but amounts to very little by the end which for me is a huge missed opportunity as this movie does deal with some huge themes that are not handled greatly by Whannell, not only that but the world in which the movie is based is not all that thought out. This movie needed an upgrade itself in budget, but I assume that Whannell was able to have total control over “Upgrade” by keeping the budget under US$3 million dollars which did not work out as this only made US$13 million which is dismal, more so if you factor in the success Blumhouse normally has with these types of movies.
“Upgrade” concerns Grey Trace, a stay-at-home mechanic, lives with his wife Asha who works for Cobolt, one of the companies contributing to an increase in human computer augmentations in a near-future world. One day, Grey asks Asha to help him return a refurbished car to his client Eron Keen, a famous tech innovator in charge of a rival company called Vessel. While visiting his home, Eron reveals his latest creation, an AI chip called STEM that can serve as an auxiliary brain. On their way home, Grey and Asha’s self-driving car malfunctions and crashes at a homeless camp. Four unknown men then arrive, shooting Asha in the stomach and Grey in the neck, severing his spinal cord. Grey watches helplessly as Asha bleeds to death next to him.
Grey returns home months later as a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, after a failed suicide attempt by overdosing on medication, he is visited by Eron, who offers to surgically implant STEM into Grey’s spine and restore motor functions to his body. Though Grey is initially resistant, Eron successfully persuades him to undergo the surgery.
The primary character and protagonist of the story is Logan Marshall-Green who does what he can to make his part as original as possible, to be honest he is the only character that has an arc at all, he has to go through a range of emotions before the genre aspects take over, in other words he has a very good acting assignment, I can immediately identify why this was a good part on paper. Marshall-Green actually seems like he is having a good time portraying someone that has an actual voice in his head as well as someone who is a quadriplegic then regains access to his limbs only to lose them again to an artificial intelligence, also played by him. “Upgrade” is pretty much a one-man show, I enjoyed Logan Marshall-Green immensely and have done so in all the projects I have seen him in even when I know he could be in a better quality of movie or show, here he exudes the natural charm you would expect from an A-list lead, if only the movie would match up to that. The rest of the cast is unexceptional with character actors that have been in genre movies before but here they are paper thin, one note, not very interesting at all which is a shame as well as an insult to the audience – this is something this movie shares with Whannell’s other efforts. The only other stand out is Betty Gabriel who plays a detective out to uncover the mystery within the story, she plays her part well and has enough screen time to really make an impact, I enjoyed her performance immensely.
At it’s most basic “Upgrade” is an action movie with a twist, in regard to that it accomplishes its goals well with some great set pieces involving hand to hand fights that work exceptionally well, especially with the conceit of a A.I. in charge of the main characters body at many times. The other element of the action are the enhancements that many of the protagonists have gone through to make themselves more deadly, these mostly work in terms of the story although in some cases they seem a little haphazard and not thought through fully enough which again may be a budget issue.
“Upgrade” does attempt to deal with some very large issues but because of the nature of the movie as well as the budget these are not very well examined at all which is a huge loss as genre films are the best way to analyse these in a meaningful way. The movie wants to look at the future of human beings as biological entities, technology as well as its place in society, the loss of skills as people rely more on plug and play technology, death as well as life and what that means moving into the middle of the 21stcentury. How A.I. may come into being, how it will relate to man as well as what it means to be ‘alive’. To be fair many of these themes could be seen in any episode of ‘Star Trek’ going back to the 1960s so if you are making a movie it is in your best interests to say something new or at least in an original way. This is where the execution of the script is not as good as it should be, I cannot help but wonder how great this movie might have been with some real inspiration behind the camera, but we will never know. This is also a movie that could have been franchised but with the disappointing box office that ship has sailed which is a shame as it could have been part ‘Terminator’ part ‘Jason Bourne’.
The good news is that this is a pretty good action movie that will keep you interested for the runtime of the movie as well as being very entertaining I am not sure I would purchase it but I would watch on a streaming service or rent, you will be glad you did but you may never watch it again.
“Upgrade” is out on DVD/Blu-ray right now.