Sunday, September 02, 2018

"Upgrade": review

2018's "Upgrade" is a multigenre SF/action/horror/dark comedy written and directed by Leigh Whannell (the guy behind the scripts for the Saw and Insidious franchises). It stars Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, and Melanie Vallejo. The story takes place in a near-future scenario of omnipresent drones, super-tall skyscrapers, ambient non-haptic technology (wave your hand in front of the screen—no need to touch anything), and retro suburbs. Grey (Marshall-Green) is a man who hates modern tech but loves tinkering with vintage cars. Fumes, metal tools, dirty rags, and engine grease are his idea of fun and fulfillment. Grey is married to his opposite, tech-embracing Asha (Vallejo), who works for a major bionics firm called Cobolt, which deals with the augmentation of injured humans through implants. Cobolt is, according to Asha, a minor competitor with the much larger corporation Vessel, an enormous bio-robotics firm run by youthful billionaire genius Eron Keen (Gilbertson).

Grey and Asha are driving home in their driverless car one night when the car goes nuts, speeds up, and ends up flipping over after having taken several wrong turns into a bad neighborhood—the neighborhood where Grey had, in fact, grown up. The couple is pulled out of their wreck by an armed gang that shoots Asha in the chest, leaving her for dead, and shoots Grey in the neck, leaving him paralyzed. Grey watches in agony as Asha dies in front of him; he blacks out and wakes up in a hospital. Eventually, he is approached by Eron Keen, who knows Grey because Grey had repaired one of Keen's classic cars. Keen secretly offers Grey the use of STEM, an AI chip that can bridge the C-spine gap that currently makes Grey a quadriplegic. Grey initially refuses, wanting only to die so he can join the departed Asha, but he eventually relents as his thoughts turn to revenge against the people who did this. Grey's mother Pam (Linda Cropper) frets in the background as all of this is going on, but she's not privy to Grey's STEM surgery, which is performed in secret at Keen's compound. Grey wakes up from surgery incredibly enhanced, and within a matter of hours, he's on his feet and walking, no longer needing his wheelchair.

Meanwhile, Detective Cortez (Gabriel) has been looking into Grey's case. She and Grey clash because Grey wants instant results, and it astounds him—as a technophobe—that all this modern technology is unable to immediately pinpoint who his wife's killers were. Cortez doesn't know that Grey has recently had surgery that allows him to walk and function again; for show, and because he's signed a nondisclosure agreement, Grey still parades around in public in a wheelchair. Despairing of finding any clues, Grey is shocked one night to hear a voice suddenly speaking in his head. This turns out to be the STEM chip itself, which comes equipped with its own personality and an apparent desire to help Grey both solve the mystery of his wife's murder and get revenge against the killers. Reviewing drone footage of the crime, Grey and STEM find their first lead, a man named Serk (Richard Cawthorne). Grey goes to Serk's house in the grungy suburbs, and while poking around the man's things, gets attacked by Serk himself, who has returned home. During the fight, STEM offers its services, asking Grey for permission to "take over" Grey's body. Desperate, Grey shouts out his permission, and STEM instantly turns Grey into a killing machine, using a mixture of brutally direct combat moves to subdue, and eventually to gruesomely kill, Serk.

The rest of "Upgrade" involves Grey and STEM's tracking down, torturing, and killing of the rest of the gang that killed Asha and crippled Grey; there are more gruesome deaths as Grey ends up being pursued not only by the police but also by Eron Keen's own security goons from Vessel: Keen can track STEM and has decided to shut STEM down remotely, something that STEM itself rebels against. The mystery reaches a crisis point that seems to culminate in a predictable dénouement, but this turns out to be a clever red herring when the real cause of Grey's predicament is finally revealed.

The movie contains hints and callbacks to other SF and horror productions, both from TV and film. A treadmill scene near the beginning is an obvious reference to TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man," for instance, and STEM's inhabiting and control of Grey's body evokes an SF version of demonic possession, especially as STEM gains its own level of autonomy, no longer needing Grey's permission to take over and use Grey's body. How horrifying the real dénouement is will depend on how plausible the viewer finds the ultimate villain's motivations to be. "Upgrade" is the first of two demonic-possession movies to hit theaters this year: the other is "Venom," with which "Upgrade" is already being compared. ("Venom" is a more organic version of the SF possession scenario: it involves an alien "symbiote" that inhabits a human host and, thanks to its own independent intelligence, takes the host over and enhances him with an array of superpowers.)

Meanwhile, I have to give the movie credit for being smarter than it initially looked. "Upgrade" has already been called a kind of schlocky, B-movie horror/action film by some reviewers, and I can definitely see the film's B-movie genes every time there's a Brian De Palma-style murder involving plenty of blood and torn flesh. But "Upgrade" anticipates some of the viewer's criticisms, such as during the scene in which Grey has just killed Serk and vomited into Serk's kitchen sink. STEM suggests that Grey remove all traces of his presence in Serk's house, including the rinsing-away of the vomit in Serk's sink—a problem that I had anticipated when that particular scene began. "Upgrade" is also something of a message movie; along with having elements of "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "The Exorcist" in it, it's also got a bit of "Ex Machina." The major issue in question is the one that confronts Grey from the very beginning of the story: do we let AI take over our lives? If so, what is the cost? The movie contends, in an obvious but not overly preachy manner, that too much AI is, in fact, a very bad thing: when we let the machines take over, they will inevitably make bad, even deadly, choices. To what extent do we allow that? And how safe is it to imbue AI with desires?

Overall, I liked "Upgrade" a lot. The buildup is fairly slow; we don't get to Grey's crucial STEM surgery until after the 30-minute mark in the story. Logan Marshall-Green (whom I found utterly annoying in that turd of a movie "Prometheus") does a fine job portraying a man slowly losing control of his own body, and the camera work is fairly novel in how it follows people as they tumble through the air. Bloody action sequences take some time to occur after Grey's surgery, but I was actually glad to see the movie paced this way: it left plenty of time for character moments and the buildup of tension, not to mention time for the expository dialogue to anticipate and head off any problems of logical inconsistency. Not to say the movie's logic ends up being entirely ironclad, but at a first pass, "Upgrade" does a good job of not appearing too ridiculous. For a B-movie, if that's what it is, it's smarter than average and grittier than most. This was a thoroughly entertaining 100-minute ride; I recommend it, but only if you're okay with seeing someone's face get brutally split open.

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