Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Runtime: 100 mins.
Australian release date: 14 June 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 5 June 2018.
The Australian screenwriter Leigh Whannell is best-known for co-creating, with his buddy James Wan, the Saw and Insidious horror series so he hasn’t turned his hand to directing much before this, his latest script Upgrade. In fact, his only previous effort was Insidious: Chapter 3. For his new film he’s stuck to what he knows best, the horror/thriller genre, only this time the action is set somewhere in the not-too-distant future in a high-tech world that’s creeping ever closer to reality, a world of computers with Artificial Intelligence, driverless cars and human/machine hybrids. The fact that all this is just around the corner makes it even scarier.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) isn’t exactly keen on this brave new world, he’s strictly an analogue guy, preferring old tech to new. He restores classic cars for rich collectors, which brings him into contact with Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a super-rich computer programmer who’s made a fortune from his inventions; a Steve Jobs kind of guy. After delivering a restored Mustang to Keen’s house, Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are car-jacked on their way home by a violent gang led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie) and left for dead. Grey survives the attack, although he’s left a quadriplegic, so when Keen says he’s developed a chip called STEM that can help him walk again, he overcomes his initial misgivings and agrees to the necessary implant. Sworn to secrecy about STEM, Grey must keep up the pretence of being wheelchair-bound but he’s hell-bent on avenging his dead wife, so this subterfuge becomes increasingly difficult, but he finds a friend in an unexpected place when STEM starts talking to him. Pretty soon he learns that STEM is capable of a lot more than coordinating his mobility. A lot more.
The retro ‘look’ of the movie harks back to a time before CGI took over Hollywood. Whannell says, “My influences during the writing of Upgrade were films like The Terminator - a perfect example of a relatively low budget independent film that feels much bigger than it is… the film pulled off an amazing sleight of hand. Arnold Schwarzenegger played the murderous robot so well that you really believed he was a cyborg under that flesh. He IS the special effect in that movie. And this is something I wanted to do with Upgrade. The 1980s were, in my opinion, a great time for science fiction films because they were the height of practical effects.” Whannell has achieved his goal; his film looks very expensive but wasn’t, at least in US terms.
He was fortunate to cast Logan Marshall-Green for the lead role because much of the action relies on Grey moving in a somewhat computer-generated way during the fight scenes. The actor trained for months to pull this effect off, dedicating himself to capturing the right kind of robotic movement required. It works really well but he’s not just all action; he conveys the emotional turmoil of his character terrifically, too. Grey is highly conflicted by STEM’s take-over of his body, as you would be. The actors surrounding him are also very good: many viewers will remember US actress Betty Gabriel from her spooky scenes as the maid in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and she’s equally effective here as Cortez, a cop who’s trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Other, lesser roles are played well, mainly by Australian actors speaking with mid-Atlantic accents, due to Upgrade’s American setting. Melbourne fills in for the unnamed US city where the film is set and does so seamlessly, abetted by Aussie cinematographer Stephan Duscio’s fluid camerawork.
This film is a lot of fun, albeit very violent, and it provides a lot of food for thought about our near future. Judging by this effort, I think Whannell should continue to hone his directorial skills as well as write. I, for one, will be watching.