Director/writer Leigh Whannell is constantly evolving. Over the years, Whannell has morphed from a film critic on the ABC’s youth-orientated TV series ‘Recovery’ to become one of the taste-makers of 21st-century horror. Not only did he write the script that kicked off the popular ‘Saw’ saga when he was 23 but, after retiring from that series, he re-teamed with director James Wan for ‘Insidious’ in 2010. This haunted house chiller launched another monstrous film franchise and Whannell went on to make his directorial debut with ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ in 2015.
Now Whannell is changing pace with the completely new, non-franchise science-fiction film, ‘Upgrade’. His second directorial feature ditches the date night-friendly spooks for robo-action and splattery gore.
Logan Marshall-Green (‘Prometheus’, ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’) plays Grey Trace, a mechanic who loves tinkering with vintage automobiles in Elon Musk’s wet dream of a future where all the cars are automated and the computer hackers look like Grimes. Grey’s wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works for Cobalt, a company which produces new-age advancements. After a mysterious car accident, he and his wife are attacked by a group of men led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie). Asha is killed and Grey is left paralysed from the neck down.
A detective, Cortez (Betty Gabriel, ‘Get Out’), is assigned to Asha’s murder case. A client of Grey’s, young billionaire genius Eron (Harrison Gilbertson, channeling Dane DeHaan), offers him a cure: an operation to install a “STEM” chip implant that could reactivate his atrophying muscles and help him wreak revenge. This operation is no sleek insertion though; the ethos is more cyberpunk than future perfect, and Whannell shows all the blood and cuts during the process.
”STEM” has a mind and voice of its own (provided by Simon Maiden) and Grey hears this calm cousin of HAL 9000 inside his own head. As one would expect from the world’s most sophisticated piece of artificial intelligence, “STEM” is really, really good at beating the shit out of people via martial arts.
The obvious comparisons to make with ‘Upgrade’ are with Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ and ‘eXistenZ’, two of the best-known films about transhumanism and morphing gun hands, and high-budget fare like Verhoeven’s ‘Robocop’ and Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’. But the film is closer to a number of impressively resourceful low-budget sci-fi action films of recent years, like Ilya Naishuller’s ‘Hardcore Henry’, Caradog W. James’ ‘The Machine’ and Steven Gomez’s ‘Kill Command’, all of which deal with emergent A.I., shady military factions and human bodies pushed beyond their fleshy limitations. When ‘Upgrade’ shifts gear towards its final act, it even takes on a detective noir quality reminiscent of Alan Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’ and the creeping dread of Brad Anderson’s ‘Session 9’.
Director Whannell and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio assemble some striking shots, particularly the surgical sequences (accompanied by a moody score courtesy of Jed Palmer) and the brutal action scenes. Logan Marshall Green and some clever choreography (via a stunt coordinator and a movement coordinator who worked with a dance company) essay Grey’s status as a passenger in his own body, his face watching, incredulously, while his body hurls bad guys like rag-dolls, shattering skulls and turning human limbs into origami (although a battle between Grey and Fisk, two artificially-precise bruisers, does look kind of like a slap-fight).
As a writer, Whannell has plenty of interesting ideas to throw against the wall, and a lot of them stick. These include Grey’s fully automated house, complete with a medication-dispensing robot that won’t let him commit suicide, and a flophouse where VR junkies are hooked up to IV bags so they can play Fortnite for weeks at a stretch. Others don’t, like Fisk using a killer sneeze, just so we can see a close-up of a droplet of saliva, whirring with razor sharp nanotechnology, before it lamely kills a guy, off-screen.
Logan Marshall Green and some clever choreography (via a stunt coordinator and a movement coordinator who worked with a dance company) essay Grey’s status as a passenger in his own body, his face watching, incredulously, while his body hurls bad guys like rag-dolls, shattering skulls and turning human limbs into origami.
Transhumanism is one of the most interesting niches of science fiction because it isn’t simply technological advancement and modification but also the growth of human values and human relationships that make them. The focus on bodies is an easy metaphor for human evolution because we see ourselves as minds trapped in bodies or bodies with minds. ‘Upgrade’ argues that reckless exploration at the boundaries of humanity, purely for the sake of exploration (or revenge), yields monstrous beings no matter their nature. In the case of Grey and "STEM", maybe you can go off the deep end and return with lessons, even if you engaged with monstrosities, that better us and might even turn those monstrosities into something we are willing to tolerate or identify with.
The future world of ‘Upgrade’ also touches on the shifting of societal power relations. We see an increased gap between poor and rich, corporations garnering even more influence than ever before, and people (like Fisk’s gang) feeling justified in changing their bodies in order to keep up with others.
On the downside, while ‘Upgrade’ is more expensive than the usual Blumhouse Productions film, the futuristic cityscape still feels a tad under-populated, with the majority of action (aside from an impressively staged car chase) taking place indoors. Grey seemingly has no friends or family, aside from his mother.
The script gives Logan Marshall Green (an underrated actor in films like ‘Devil’, ‘The Invitation’ and TV’s ‘Quarry’) and Benedict Hardie some juicy dialogue, but the rest of the cast (like Betty Gabriel’s detective and Betty Cropper as Grey’s mother) are essentially playing ciphers. The young futurist, Eron, could have used some serious beefing up. Where does his fascination with surpassing human limitations come from? There is no answer, so we just have to assume he is searching for a transhuman form of life - one which combines body and machine – for... uh, reasons.
These quibbles aside, ‘Upgrade’ has a supremely likeable protagonist; interesting world-building; imaginative sci-fi concepts and the blackest of black humours... but I particularly liked the feeling that Whannell was really thinking about our culture and our future when he wrote and directed this film.
‘Upgrade’, with its low budget, innovative mixtures of story and vision, and unabashed genre thrills and chills, manages to thrash out some of the metaphysics of the twenty-first century.