Film Review: Upgrade.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Upgrade.

Leigh Whannell is an Australian screenwriter, actor, film producer, film director, and the creative partner of James Wan (The Conjuring, Aquaman). The pair met at RMIT and collaborated on the Blumhouse Productions film franchises Saw and Insidious before Whannell directed Upgrade and, most recently, The Invisible Man starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale).

Over the last decade, Whannell collaborated on seven projects, including Upgrade, with Blumhouse Productions, known mainly for producing low-budget horror films. Although Whannell is now based in LA, both Upgrade and The Invisible Man were shot in Australia, where Whannell says you get “more bang for your buck”. Writing and directing Upgrade, and venturing into science fiction, meant Whannell had to work with a micro-budget to achieve big-budget effects. He credits the film’s “world class” Australian crew for what they were able to achieve, and for giving the film a distinctive visual style, specifically the fight scenes utilising a particular camera technique.

Whannell says of his crew, “The Steadicam operator on this film worked on Fury Road. What’s interesting is that the top technicians—the gaffers and the grips—they do these big movies that come to Australia, like Superman Returns or The Matrix, but those movies aren’t always shooting. So, between those jobs, they do $3 million indie films. You’re sitting there on the set of your indie film, and the gaffer’s last movie was a Scorsese film”.

To obtain the specific feel and distinct movement Whannell wanted, actor Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation, Prometheus, and Spider-Man: Homecoming), who plays the central character, Grey Trace, trained for months with a movement coach and fight choreographer.

During a brutal mugging, Grey Trace is left paralysed and his wife is killed. After having a high-tech experimental computer chip, named STEM, installed in his neck, he regains not only the ability to walk again, but is also endowed with super-human qualities. Trace goes on a mission to track down his wife’s killers. 
 
Primarily a sci-fi thriller, the film contains some graphic scenes that reflect Whannell’s background in horror films. 

Image from film Upgrade, directed by Leigh Whannell, produced by Blumhouse Productions et al, streamed by Kanopy database.

UPGRADE

The bizarrely named Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green, an actor whose performance in the 2015 film The Invitation immediately set him high on my list of “to watch” actors) is an auto mechanic, living in an increasingly automated world that looks very much like not-too-distant future and seems to be leaving him behind. Following a horrifying incident involving their self-driving car that leaves Grey paralyzed and his wife Asha deceased, an offer is made to him. One seemingly too good to be true and too tantalizing to resist.

Eron Keen (Australian actor Harrison Gilbertson – channelling the spirit of Klaus Kinski with eerie resolve) is a tech innovator, brandishing the holy grail of STEM – a single multi-purpose chip that will allow Grey to reclaim his mobility, amongst other increasingly dark tasks.  As STEM begins communicating telepathically with Grey and pointing him in the direction of the men responsible for his wife’s death, we’re confronted with the question of who is actually in charge of his will and thoughts.

Jumping off from an undeniably dark premise, there’s no denying just how surprisingly witty, energetic and engaging Upgrade is. The movie that kept popping into my mind was Robocop, and how it’s mixture of grotesque satire, excessive carnage and human heart managed to produce something almost universally recognised and respected. It’s a balancing act that director Leigh Whannell pulls off with applause worthy confidence.

Like Robocop, this is a movie that’s deceptively complex. It’s not ashamed of its pulpier elements, and in fact it realises that nobody is watching Upgrade for a serious analysis of our relationship with technology, and what the implications of our frightening level of dependence on it could lead to. We’re here for the spectacle and the action – elements that Whannell delivers with the inventive, confident hand he’s unquestionably developed over near twenty years in the movie biz, but the underlying elements are there. As the sinister presence of STEM and it’s exact nature slowly become more prevalent in the movie, so do the moments of humour or levity retract (Marshall-Green’s performance in the kinetic action sequences, operating as a passenger in his own body are outstanding) – revealing a story interested not only in the human players with it, but the framework of unknowable, essentially supernatural machinery that forms a scaffold around and eventually through the meat puppets in its snare. The spectacle we see in nature of plants wrapping around and sucking the life from other, weaker forms of flora would not be an inaccurate comparison.

The production company behind Upgrade is worth mentioning, particularly in how this movie works on a gut-reaction. Blumhouse Productions has been successful in operating as what once would have been referred to as grindhouse cinema – making movies (primarily horror pics) cheaply and quickly for maximum word-of-mouth audience satisfaction. Much like the best examples of old grindhouse, they frequently tap into almost universal threads of societal anxiety. Films like Get Out, Unfriended, The Purge, The Hunt and Whannell’s excellent 2020 adaptation of The Invisible Man have all come from the Blumhouse banner, and all of them offer an exaggerated meditation on life in the 21st century. A grotesque funhouse mirror of our modern concerns now captured forever. They’re proof that aiming squarely at a goal outside what is normally thought of as “serious cinema” doesn’t automatically have to result in a film devoid of meaning or lasting impact.

Like it’s stable-mates, Upgrade is a movie that asks, “What do we fear, right now?” while remembering there’s nothing wrong with being outrageously entertained for two hours. 

Further reading

  • Building Blumhouse. Lang, Brent. 2018. Variety; Vol. 340(11), pp.60-65. (article)
  • Getting the Most Blood for your Buck. Lim, Brandon. 2006. Broken Pencil; Iss. 37, p.57. (article)
  • Not Quite Hollywood. McDonnell, Jenny. 2009. The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies; Iss. 6,  pp.65-66. (article)
  • Towards an understanding of Australian genre cinema and entertainment: Beyond the limitations of 'Ozploitation' discourse. Ryan, Mark David. 2010. Continuum: Entertainment Industries, Vol.24(6), pp.843-854. (article)
  • Most Haunted. Diaz, Amanda. 2011. Inside Film: If, No. 141, p.25. (article)
  • Planning the low-budget film Robert Latham Brown / Latham Brown, Robert; Los Angeles : Chalk Hill Books ; c2006 (ebook)
  • Saw / Poole, Benjamin ;  Leighton Buzzard, England : Auteur ;  2014 (ebook)
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Sounds great. Will look it up. Great review.