The ability to upgrade our pathetic meat popsicle bodies has long been an important goal of science and consequently sci-fi has also sought to reflect this desire. I know it sure is one that is frequently on my mind as I fall again and smack my head on the ground because my brain was getting tired of the whole being upright thing. Instead of the logical course of action (sitting in a dark, quiet room the next day), I went with the thematic one of Upgrade, the latest film from Leigh Whannell.
Whannell made his big break in his collaborations with James Wan on the Saw and Insidious series as the writer and a frequent actor. He finally made his directorial debut with Insidious: Chapter 3, a film that felt completely unnecessary and lackluster. This time out though, he strikes in a completely new direction, both with an original property, and a new genre as he has moved into the realm of sci-fi-action. That’s not to say Upgrade completely leaves Whannell’s roots behind as there is quite a bit of body horror as well, but it’s far from the focus here.
Set in a fairly generic future, the kind where smart houses, smart cars, etc. have become the norm (at least for the well to do) with drones flying about to keep a watchful eye on everything, we are introduced to our generic grizzled white lead (played by Logan Marshall-Green) who of course wants to keep everything low tech and hates the automation. It’s a tiresome stereotype to be sure and I could feel my eyes rolling as he’s introduced, but the film did something unexpected, they made him tolerable, nay, likable in spite of his bitterness. For a start, he’s not a future hipster, he’s a genuinely blue-collar worker who instead sees the automation for what is also is (besides being less fun for certain things it also means taking work away from the kind of people he grew up with) and maintains a job repairing old cars for eccentric rich people, but mostly just being the house husband of a more successful tech developer. He’s also terrible at playing grizzled, to the point where it comes off as more adorable than anything else.
This idyllic life goes to hell in an impossible not to spoil moment where their smart car is hijacked and crashed, his wife killed, and himself left on the pavement now a quadriplegic. With it all taken away, he’s offered a choice by his (of course reclusive) rich, bleach-blond bargain-Dane Dehaan client, become the host of an experimental smart AI chip which will allow you to walk again and implicitly to help track down the people who killed your wife or live the rest of your life in misery.
With all the set-up out of the way, the movie really kicks off as the AI and our protagonist team of to track down and graphically murder those responsible as he tries to figure out why they were targeted. The AI takes a passive role unless called upon to take over, acting as magic CSI, kung fu Neo upgrade, overwatch, whatever the situation calls for. Besides giving the lead someone to banter off of in some frequently darkly humorous moments, it also lends itself to some distinctive action which while hardly original (it’s a lot of shifting the camera as bodies gets knocked down to keep them appearing vertical) does look good and avoids too much in the way of the twin specters of modern action movies, shaky cam and too many quick cuts. It also lends to some deliciously brutal violence which combined with the emphasis on creative (some far more so than others) body modifications is where the body horror comes in. The physical rejection at the visceral horror being conducted by the AI at his behest makes both for some of the best dark humor of the film and a nice change of pace. For it is made obvious time and again that our lead is untrained and vulnerable, a fascinating dichotomy with the unstoppable badass he is when the AI takes over.
That’s not to say that the movie is perfect, far from it. It’s probably best not to think about the logic of the plot too much with the all-seeing police (represented by a single dogged police officer) being only as all-seeing and powerful as the plot requires. The officer, as portrayed by Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel, feels underwritten with the film unsure whether to write her as a direct, sympathetic counterpart or as a glorified “insert moment of tension here”. The dialogue is frequently abysmal with characters so often and repeatedly addressing each other by name. As I mentioned before, it can still make for some great moments between AI and human lead, but as soon as anyone else gets involved, it gets painful fast. It’s also not nearly as clever as it thinks it is as each new reveal gets dropped, each one more clogging up the plot then exploring it.
All in all, I’m willing to be forgiving of its deficiencies because it just ticks so many of my boxes. I love films with visceral hand to hand style action (though not exclusively that), the body horror, the somewhat cheesy dark sci-fi, the half-baked oft-forgotten philosophical concerns. It’s just fun and filled with plenty of interesting ideas. It may not deliver on all of those, but it also dodges some of the easy traps that could have sunk it and delivers where it counts.