In the near future technology has expanded to more facets of our lives: Police drones patrol the skies keeping an electronic eye out for trouble, driverless cars are becoming more the norm and people are beginning to improve themselves with technological upgrades. One person bucking the trend is Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green). He works on classic cars from the 1970’s and 1980’s and restores them to perfect condition. Grey is married to Asha (Melanie Vallejo) who works for a biotech firm making mechanical arms and legs for military veterans that have lost limbs in battle. Grey has restored a Firebird for eccentric billionaire Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) and he takes Asha along to drop off the car at Keen’s house. While there, Keen shows Grey and Asha a new project he’s working on called Stem which Keen describes as a microcomputer that is meant to improve whatever it connects to. As they are riding home in Asha’s self-driving car it malfunctions and crashes in a bad part of town. Another car pulls up and four men get out and pull Asha and Grey from the car. One man shoots Asha while another shoots Grey at the base of his neck. Asha dies and Grey is paralyzed from the neck down. Grey doesn’t want to live and tries to overdose on his meds. While recovering in the hospital Grey is visited by Keen who makes him an offer: Grey can regain the use of his limbs by having Stem implanted at the point of his injury. Keen demands Grey tell no one of his implant and the operation must be done by surgeons at Keen’s home. Grey agrees and in just a matter of days Grey is running on a treadmill with complete use of his extremities. After returning home Grey hears a voice in his head: It’s Stem. The microcomputer can communicate with Grey and him with Stem. Stem sees something in the police drone surveillance footage of the attack on Asha and Grey and identifies one of their attackers. Grey has spoken with Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) and knows she has no leads in the case and Stem reminds him he has agreed to keep the implant a secret so Grey decides to investigate this person and soon discovers Stem can do much more than just give him use of his limbs.
While “Upgrade” will neither be praised for its subtlety nor for its thoughtful approach to graphic violence in movies, director and writer Leigh Whannell has given us an exciting and action-packed B-movie that may have more of a message than most films of this type get credit for. It may just be the smartest dumb movie considering what it means to be human in a flood of technology.
Whannell is best known for writing numerous recent horror films including the first three “Saw” films and all four of the “Insidious” series. This is his second time in the director’s chair after “Insidious: Chapter 3” and this is a superior effort. “Upgrade” manages to tell its story clearly and succinctly while still including a large amount of graphic and bloody violence. It’s a perfect mixture of brains and brawn that doesn’t pander to the audience. Whannell has a long history of giving audiences what they want via his scripts: Morally vague antagonists, laser-focused villains and a fair amount of gore. In his films that are rated PG-13 he can’t go full on blood bath so he has to give his story a bit more attention. In “Upgrade” Whannell lays on the gore with a measured hand while also conjuring up a murder mystery and a look at a future filled with tech invading all aspects of our lives. If Whannell was a juggler he’d have about a dozen balls in the air but he never drops any of them. It’s a masterful job.
Logan Marshall-Green also deserves some praise for his performance as Grey. There is a scene where Grey’s mother is trimming his beard after he comes home from the hospital following the shooting. Marshall-Green’s face goes through all the stages of grief right before our eyes in a matter of seconds and it’s deeply affecting. Marshall –Green also can handle the lighter moments of the story with the biting sense of humor someone in his unenviable position would likely express. Along with the stunt and special effect team, Marshall-Green also performs the action scenes in a way that couldn’t have been easy: Moving his body like someone else was in control and he was merely an observer. There are some laughs in the action scenes when Grey appears horrified at what his body is doing during the fights. It is a great performance.
The story of “Upgrade” appears to be a simple revenge tale with sci-fi decorations but I thought it was a bit deeper than that. Writer and director Leigh Whannell jumps into a plausible future where technology is being integrated into the human body providing upgrades for those that can afford it. This has many benefits but, like with everything else, it can be used for good and for evil. The morality and ethics of merging flesh and electronics isn’t delved into at all in the film; but what is explored is how such augmentation blurs the line between humans and machines. That line becomes hazier when there’s a chance the machines can begin thinking for themselves which leads to the question of who is in charge: The man or the machine? While these philosophical questions are left largely unexplored they did crop up in my mind by the time the film reached its somewhat surprising conclusion. It’s odd that any movie leads to questions that ring in the brain when the credits roll but “Upgrade” did just that for me.
“Upgrade” is rated R for grisly images, strong violence and language. There are numerous bloody deaths and injuries shown in the film. They include a person nearly having their head cut in half by a knife, a person’s head being blown off by a gunshot, a person being stabbed in the hand with the knife shown protruding through the other side, a person being stabbed in the head, a person being cut several times as a form of torture and much more. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
“Upgrade” is from Blumhouse, the same studio responsible for “Get Out,” “The Purge,” “Paranormal Activity” and “Whiplash.” They are famous for churning out low-budget movies quickly, establishing popular horror/suspense franchises and being extremely profitable. Their success has attracted more and more talent to their projects including director M. Night Shyamalan who found new life with his Blumhouse projects “The Visit” and “Split,” and Spike Lee whose “BlacKkKlansman” due out later this year generated a great deal of buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So far, none of the films produced by Blumhouse have cost more than $10-million and many have generated enormous profits. It is a business model that allows directors creative freedom as long as they keep costs low. Horror and suspense movie fans seem to be happy with the Blumhouse way and they should find “Upgrade” to be more of the same.
“Upgrade” gets five stars.
This week I’ll be reviewing “Oceans 8” for WIMZ.com.
If I have time I’ll see and review one of the following:
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