Between updated privacy policies and Elon Musk shenanigans, there is no better time right now for a techno-thriller. Horror visionary Leigh Whannell (Saw and the Insidious franchise) took all this technological paranoia, pumped it with video game style violence and body horror, resulting in a modern grindhouse masterpiece: Upgrade. The film follows a man who is left quadriplegic after a car accident and attack, resulting in the death of his wife. After undergoing a secret surgery, Grey Trace is in control of his body again…or is he? Equipped with the experimental STEM microchip, Grey becomes the ultimate killing machine to get his revenge. And once the mayhem and carnage start, there is no stopping him. Upgrade is such a bad-ass movie, it hurts. Let’s dig in!
Fear the Future
Starting with the man behind the camera, Leigh Whannell improves leaps and bounds from his directorial debut Insidious Chaper 3. Known more as a writer (Saw, Saw 2, Cooties) or as an actor, it was so refreshing to see how comfortable he was in the chair. Upgrade is an original concept and he’s also the sole screenwriter, giving him room to really stretch his legs and CONJURE up (shit, wrong franchise) some sci-fi/horror goodness. Whannell is known for his clever concepts, which he puts on full display building this not-so-distant world. The technological advancements make sense, they’re believable, and the film is grounded pretty firmly in reality. He also tells a pretty heart-breaking story through our protagonist, Grey, which can be hard to pull off authentically in a horror movie. When watching Upgrade, you can really tell Whannell put blood, sweat, probably motor oil…and more blood into crafting this film.
Let’s talk about Logan Marshall-Green; AKA Floyd Greyweather, AKA Connor MacGregor Pro, AKA C-3KO. In Upgrade, Grey serves up all the hands like RoboCop programmed with the vengeance of Batman. Even more impressive than making a terrific debut as an emerging action star, LMG gives one of the best performances of 2018 so far. There are so many little nuances to this performance, set-up by a brilliantly written character by Whannell. I absolutely loved The Invitation, where Marshall-Green gives a fantastic and heart-breaking performance, so I knew the man had some acting chops. He takes it to a whole new level in Upgrade, blending his expressive emotional range (the first act setting everything up hurts so good) with some supremely impressive physicality (I’m too lazy to research, but I’d assume he did most of his own stunts).
To unpack that second part without spoiling anything, LGM’s body movements would change as the connection between Grey and STEM evolved. Best example of this is when Grey goes into Terminator mode, his body is effortlessly performing all of these actions while his face reacts in horror what he’s doing. This adds a layer of complexity to Grey‘s character, who is morally struggling with his situation, and his relationship with STEM (which also added a surprising amount of humor to the film). I have a feeling come Oscar Season, Logan Marshall-Green is going to be a name floating around similarly to James McAvoy’s superb performance in last year’s Split.
So I spent a lot of time praising LMG because…well, he’s only performance worth talking about. Betty Gabriel (Get Out, Westworld) is wasted as the typical “untrusting cop” with no development whatsoever. Harrison Gilbertson is inconsistent, trying really hard to play the typical “socially awkward genius” with moments here and there shining through. And Bennedict Hardie is underutilized, adding some charisma to yet another tropey “mustache twirling villain” (though not very twirlable, his mustache is still pretty menacing). Luckily, the cool part about Upgrade is that you’re so sucked into the world, the action set-pieces and Grey’s journey; the supporting characters can be ignored for the most part.
Speaking of action, let’s talk about that real quick to end this review on a high note. And that’s what 70% of people who go see this movie care about, anyways. I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to action and fight choreography, because I get frustrated with movies making them overly-complicated excessive cuts and erratic camerawork (I’m looking at you Taken 3). Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio crafted some killer fight sequences, coming up with unique way of keeping the action in frame while keeping up with Grey’s beyond-humanly fast movements. While giving Duscio a shout-out, the whole movie looks amazing for real. I almost hate it when people keep referring to Upgrade as a B-Movie, because the overall quality is incredible (especially keeping in mind the tight Blumhouse budget).
It was tough to manage my expectations for this movie, given the hype train came out the festival circuit at full steam. But I’ll be damned if Whannell & company didn’t absolutely deliver. At the year’s halfway mark, Upgrade is sitting at the top of my list for “Best Movie of 2018”. It has everything I could want from a horror/action/sci-fi romp and then some: slick style, hyper violence, high concept thinking, all anchored by a Tour de FIST performance by Logan Marshall-Green. And what makes me even happier, is the fact that a film as bonkers as this one got a wide release. We need movies like this to do well, so we can continue to get more original genre films made. So stop reading this review, unplug yourself from your phone/laptop, and go see Upgrade in theaters.
Score: 9.3/10 Self-Driving Cars
Bonus Level (Semi-Spoilery!)
Though these little epilogues are mainly to talk about what I learned as an aspiring filmmaker from the film, gotta use this one to talk about the movie a tad more. NOT A SPOILER BUT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HOW UPGRADE PLAYS OUT, STOP READING NOW.
Sooooo the ending to this movie is an absolute punch to the jugular, and I loved it. I’m a weirdly grim guy, so I usually favor a not-so-happy ending in my horror movies. I keep making comparisons to Black Mirror when describing the movie to people, and it totally fits, especially considering most episodes have pretty dark endings. There was a moment I thought Upgrade was going to end with a pretty bow on top…until Whannell swooped in, cut that ribbon with a giant pair of scissors, and proceeded to stab me in the heart (emotionally of course, Leigh seems like a nice guy). Some may say it was risky, I say it was genius, and if you say you saw it coming I probably hate you. Not to say I wasn’t set up, because there was a scene that was fun but seemed a bit out of place. While processing the movie, it hit me and I applaud Whannell for his sneakily clever script. My biggest take away from Upgrade is when you have a idea, don’t half-ass it. Take the time to nurture and build it, the way the Leigh Whannell builds his worlds. Though I think the ending is perfect, I wouldn’t mind returning to the universe down the line. Until then, I’ll have to settle for watching this movie 3,141 more times.
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