• Tue. May 28th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

Oh, what a happy little miracle this was.

Here we have a movie about the runaway progress of computers, a subject that Hollywood has repeatedly and shamefully failed to talk about in any kind of intelligent or even semi-competent manner. But then again, this isn’t exactly your typical Hollywood feature — the budget was a reported $5 million, with no big names attached and zero support from any of the mainstream studios. Hell, it wasn’t even released by any of the usual second-tier distributors like Lionsgate or A24.

The only two even halfway recognizable names here are writer/director Leigh Whannell and exec-producer Jason Blum. If either of those names sound familiar, you should already know this is not your average sci-fi action romp.

Whannell is the writer who co-created the Saw franchise and wrote all of the Insidious movies, while Blum produced almost every horror movie of note made in the last twenty years. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that these two (along with James Wan) basically invented the 21st-century cinematic horror, for better and for worse. Remember, Blum singlehandedly produced this movie and got it nationwide distribution without any support from the major studios — if that’s not proof of how hugely influential he’s become, tell me what is.

Given the established strengths of Whannell and Blum, you might be surprised that Upgrade isn’t being marketed as a horror film. Except that it kind of is a horror film. It also has elements of science fiction, action, revenge thriller, and a few other miscellaneous genres. And it succeeds at every one of them.

To be entirely, fair, the plot does get predictable in places. When we’re first introduced to Grey (Logan Marshall-Green in a starmaking turn) and his wife (Asha, played by Melanie Vallejo), the two of them interact in such a saccharine way that she might as well have been wearing a great big sign around her neck, saying “I WILL DIE OR TURN EVIL.” Sure enough, the two of them are stuck in a car wreck at roughly the fifteen minute mark. To finish the job, some unnamed and heavily cyber-enhanced thugs murder Asha in cold blood and leave Grey as a quadriplegic, unable to do much of anything without cutting-edge mechanical assistance.

Let’s pause for a moment to take a closer look at what we’ve got. First of all, our main couple is a study in contrast, as Asha has fully immersed herself in an online world that practically runs itself while Grey is an analog man fixing up classic muscle cars. So while Grey isn’t exactly lounging around, he runs a specialty luxury business that only a handful of wealthy customers can either need or afford, while Asha’s skill set is far more in-demand. As Grey alludes to later on, you have to wonder how many in this world are like him, unemployed and destitute, solely dependent on others for income when their skills have been made obsolete and their jobs taken away by machines. Oh, and because Asha was the breadwinner, of course that’s another reason why it hurts so much for Grey to see her gunned down right in front of him. You know, besides the obvious.

After losing all motor function below the neck, Grey is presented with a fancy wheelchair and all sorts of machines to help him get around and stay active. But of course, none of it will help him restore cars like he used to, so there goes the one and only thing he could do to make money. And while there are so many different machines to help him live a productive life, none of it can do jack shit to restore his will to live. Consider that this man who’s lost everything — up to and including his own motor functions — is surrounded by hardware and software built with so many failsafes that he can’t even end his own life, no matter how badly he wants to. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see Grey sunk so low. Enter Eron, played by Harrison Gilbertson.

Eron is the reclusive and eccentric head of a global cyber-conglomerate. At the moment, he’s hard at work developing a computer chip he calls “STEM”. While the chip is still only a prototype, he promises that it will totally change the future. And coincidentally, Eron just happens to be Grey’s last loyal customer in the car restoration business. So Eron convinces Grey to be the first live human test subject for STEM, on condition that this highly illegal test be kept secret.

Thus STEM is implanted and Grey pretty much immediately regains all motor function. And as an unintended side effect, Grey now has a highly advanced AI (voiced by Simon Maiden) in his head to give him directions, enhanced senses, photographic memory, and preternatural martial arts skills. Oh, and STEM can also interface with any online machine, that goes without saying.

I have absolutely no idea what Eron expected Grey to do with all these new abilities, but he apparently didn’t want Grey and STEM to go out and kill people in the search for whomever killed Asha. Too bad, because that’s exactly what happens.

Obviously, STEM is the most far-fetched strain on our suspension of disbelief, but we do get to see some other insanely advanced (and ridiculously awesome) cybernetic enhancements as the plot unfolds. While none of them will ever be seen for a long time, if at all, they represent many tech-related problems that are very real in the here and now. To start with, there’s definitely a class issue at play here, as all the best tech will invariably be reserved for those who can afford it. Thus the wealthy get to have superhuman intelligence, unmatched physical prowess, and so many other neat abilities while the poor are left in the dust. If inequality is bad now, just imagine how bad it would be if the rich and powerful were literally more than human.

What makes it even worse is the matter of ownership. So long as corporations are free to take back the products that they make, track their every movement, collect the data they generate, use said data in whatever way possible, and even remotely access those products, can it even really be said that the consumer owns that product? Even if it’s directly integrated into our bodies and our very lives literally depend on it? And with the subject of power, of course we have to discuss responsibility. If somebody uses an artificially intelligent product to inflict serious harm, who’s at fault — the user, the AI, or the company that built it? What if the AI goes rogue or the machine gets hacked, who’s at fault then?

Those are not hypothetical questions, by the way — we have drones right now that allow a pilot on remote control to blow shit up half a world away. The issue of accountability is a hot topic with regard to drones, and it’s only a short jump (and probably a matter of time) until AI-piloted drones become a reality. To say nothing of the self-driving cars that are already here.

Last but not least, of course there will be some things that machines will never do as well as humans. The “human element” of this movie could easily have been so cloying and forced, but the filmmakers successfully show the importance of empathy and analog skills in clever and satisfying ways. Probably my favorite example happens in a big climactic fight, when Grey introduces an unpredictable human element that STEM never possibly could have. It shows the symbiotic relationship between them in a novel way.

There are so many layers to the sci-fi material here, and it’s a huge credit to the movie that all of this is presented in a plausible way. The world of this movie genuinely looks like the technology of our world taken maybe fifty years toward its most extreme conclusion (STEM, of course, being the outlandish exception). It shows an intelligent and informed understanding of where we are and where we’re heading with regard to our online world, and that’s painfully rare to see in films nowadays.

Speaking of which, the pacing is absolutely exquisite. The opening is especially noteworthy, with perfectly timed reveals to establish this world and ease us into the level of technology at play. Moving forward, all the important plot developments build on each other superbly, and there’s a constant sense of momentum throughout the brief runtime. Hell, Grey is stuck for so many minutes of screentime in a wheelchair and unable to move, but the movie keeps dropping him to new lows with clockwork regularity, such that his arc never lets up even when he’s incapable of independent movement. And even when the plot started taking several predictable turns, that only served to put me off my guard just in time for the last couple of gut-punching twists.

(Side note: It bears mentioning that the opening credits are entirely spoken. There’s no onscreen text for the opening credits, just a computerized voice to tell us the studio names and the movie title. You’d be amazed how disconcerting that is — it’s a great way to throw us off our balance before the movie’s even started.)

The performances are solid across the board, but Logan Marshall-Green is on another level. His physical performance here — as a normal human, as a quadriplegic, as a cyborg whose movements are eerily robotic, and every possible mix in between — is utterly astounding. What’s especially great is when STEM is in charge, kicking more ass per second than should be humanly possible, and Grey is responding with bewildered disgust. Marshall-Green’s face and his body are giving two completely different performances in those moments, and the disconnect is perfectly convincing. I have no idea how he could have done it. Also, major kudos for selling Grey’s interplay with STEM — you’d be amazed how hard it is to talk to yourself and sell a conversation to the extent that Marshall-Green does here.

The visuals are an absolute delight. I love it when a microbudget film looks like it cost ten times as much, and the sterling production value here is a fantastic example. The future tech on display looks wonderful, and the moments of body horror are gruesome in a neatly satisfying way. But what I really loved most of all were the choices made on the set and in the editing room. Some of the lighting choices look wonderful, and the movie is loaded with camera moves that are positively inspired. There are several great editing choices as well, especially when the fight scenes and chase scenes are made to look super-fast without ever becoming incoherent.

Upgrade is one of those rare few blessed movies that blends several genres into something greater than the sum of its parts. The horror is visceral, the action is breathtaking, the comic relief is effective, the revenge thriller plot is compelling, and the sci-fi is incisively smart on multiple levels. The performances are wonderful — Logan Marshall-Green alone is worth the cost of admission — and the visuals are inspired. Even when the plot gets predictable and the moralizing gets heavy-handed, it’s all presented in such a relentlessly entertaining way that I had a fantastic time throughout.

It’s stylish, intelligent, creative, beautifully paced, and it’s shocking to think that this is only Leigh Whannell’s second movie as a director! After goddamn Insidious: Chapter 3! If this is what Whannell is capable of when he doesn’t have a franchise to worry about, I hope he keeps it coming.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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