Quick Hit: Knight Rider and KITT have nothing on STEM and Grey.
I left Upgrade positively elated, because it means the state of my two favorite movie genres are absolutely taking off. Horror has been on fire lately, what with A Quiet Place taking a bunch of money this year. Annihilation started off the science fiction year strongly as far as inventive and bold sci-fi, and now we have Upgrade from the mind of Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious franchise). His second directorial film is bold, brash, and beautiful, showing that this man who has long stayed in James Wan’s shadow is ready to take the reins on his own career.
To give a short summary – the film follows Gray after a haunting event turns him into a quadriplegic. His interaction with a mysterious young man in charge of a massive computer company leads him to be implanted with STEM, a new computer chip. This allows him to walk, and well, just watch the film for more.
Humanity has always been fascinated by robots and computers and what the future looks like with them. In the news lately we’ve had Amazon peddling face recognition software (which plays a part here), and robot voices that will call and set up your appointments, while sounding as human as you can please. One of my favorite movies out there is Her in which a man falls in love with his OS. But what we see here is a science fiction movie filled with all the best parts of different science fiction tropes without being derivative. There’s the humor of a human conversing with an ultra-logical robot from Knight Rider, the joy of a human learning new tasks from The Matrix, and the mixing of the abilities of man and bot like Robocop. There’s also the immersive landscape here and we’re immediately dropped in, and what is occurring in the film is not that far off from reality. That allows Whannell to drop in some more hints of the future with its grimy, off-the-grid bars, and architecture indicative of a desire for minimalism. In other words, Whannell succeeds just as much as Blade Runner 2049 in dropping us into the future and us not realizing we were dropped.
Speaking of dropped, the action scenes here are awesome. The combination of Gray and STEM is shot in an extremely fun way – Gray’s point of view tends to be more chaotic, with the camera straying out of focus in a desire to keep up with the whole action. When STEM is in charge, the camera is razor sharp, and everything is crystal clear. This is an awesome detail that adds a lot as the film builds towards its climaxes (yes, plural), but keeps the onus on its star, Logan Marshall-Green.
Logan Marshall-Green, based solely on this performance, needs to be in more movies that I see. When we open the movie, his character Grey Trace is reflective of some many of us… on vacation. We want to be away from our computers, off the grid, and able to do things on our own without the assistance of a computer. In his accident, he’s convincing as a quadriplegic, and he carries some weight in some incredibly emotional scenes. But his acting talent truly shows when STEM is implanted, giving him the ability to talk to himself and react to what STEM is doing. This innocent bystander gag has got to be tougher than it looks, but Marshall-Green handles it masterfully. His physical acting is just as talented, with a completely different body language depending on who is in control. It’s a performance that didn’t go unnoticed, and hopefully won’t in Hollywood either.
By the way, that innocent bystander gag is just some of the humor that abounds throughout. I did not expect this movie to be nearly as funny it was, but not much time goes without a full-bellied laugh. And they are completely organic laughs that are derived from the material and the interaction of the characters – and one shot at the Cloud interface so popular today. Simon Maiden, who voices STEM, should get a lot of credit for the humor. It’s like JARVIS on steroids, inside your body, and it is well worth a watch.
This review is getting long, but make no mistake, this movie isn’t just a laugh fest. There are some absolutely cheer worthy moments where the crowd went wild during the screening. With a background in horror, particularly something like Saw, it’s not surprising that Upgrade features gore – what is surprising is how effectively it is managed throughout the film. It’s always a surprise when it happens, and it’s always gruesomely effective.
P.S. the ending is a kick in the pants. I loved it.
I’d highly advise you all to check our Mr. Whannell’s film – it opens on June 1st. I’m giving it an “A”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"