Two movies in one weekend?! What a LOSER! Yeah, yeah…I know. (head hangs in shame). But, while we’re at it…let me tell you about this movie I saw…
Australian Writer / Director / Actor Leigh Whannell (‘Saw’), like his partner-in-crime and fellow Aussie James Wan (‘Insidious’), has done well for himself so far, in jolly ole Hollywoodland. On top of having written a number of solid horror scripts (‘Saw 1-3’, ‘Insidious’, ‘Dead Silence’ etc), he had also recently begun honing his skills behind the camera, with ‘Insidious Chapter 3’ (2015) being his first go. I admit that I have yet to catch up with that one, but the buzz on it was solid. I got wind of ‘Upgrade’, his second go as Director, purely by accident, when I stumbled upon a crazy Red Band trailer on the Interwebz. I was intrigued right away, as I’m a sucker for gritty, hard-hitting action and ‘grounded’ sci-fi elements, especially in the cyberpunk genre, which I think has gotten the short end of the stick, when it comes to solid cinematic representation. I’m not saying there isn’t any cyberpunk cinema out there…I’m just saying that the good ones are few and far between. But this one could verge on Great. I see ‘cult favorite’ written all over it.
So I went and saw the massively-budgeted ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ yesterday with a buddy and we had fun with it, in an empty, ‘popcorn’-kinda way. Today I went to this one…and walked out immensely satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, I love humongously-budgeted Blockbusters as much as the next nerd, but I always end up with a deeper appreciation for the medium of Film when I catch the smaller- budgeted, but immensely creative thrillers that pop up from time to time. I recently had my eye set on another intriguing thriller, ‘Hotel Artemis’, but it came and went in the span of one week, so I knew the chances were that this $5 million flick probably had about the same ‘shelf life’. So I said “SCREW IT!”…”I’m going to be THAT GUY, who goes to the theatre twice in one Canada Day Long Weekend!!” And I did exactly that.
‘Upgrade’ takes place in a near-future that plays as very believable, with logical advances in current technology melding messily with the run-down and worn out infa-structure of modern / future society. In this speculative landscape (that’s NOT some dystopian ruin), there’s a scruffy, but charming mechanic named ‘Gray’ (Logan Marshall-Green). He’s just a dude’s dude, who gets to stay home restoring muscle cars while his executive-type wife earns the bread at a robotics corporation. After meeting a bizarre client of ‘Gray’s named ‘Eron’ (Harrison Gilbertson); a young, socially-awkward scientist sitting on a ton of cash, things get messy. As ‘Gray’ and his wife are driving home one night, their self-driving car goes ape-shit and crashes them into a rough part of town, where they are set upon by thugs who seem a bit more complicated than just common ruffians. The wife is brutally murdered and ‘Gray’s spine is severed when he’s left for dead. He sinks into a deep depression during treatment, to the point of suicide attempts when he’s approached by ‘Eron’, who offers him a solution in the form of a new medical / technological breakthrough called STEM. After STEM is implanted, ‘Gray’ discovers that not only can STEM enable him to walk again, but it can also take over his actions and use him like a puppet. It also speaks. And when it does…it begins pointing ‘Gray’ in the direction of his wife’s murderers… and the larger conspiracy that led to her death.
I knew I was in for something special when the opening credits were READ ALOUD to the audience by the soothingly digital female voice of an operating system that turns up later in the movie, accompanied by a trippy sound-wave pattern onscreen. I’d never seen that before and I tipped my hat to Leigh Whannell, not two minutes into the one hour, forty minute run-time. The aesthetic is gritty, banged up and lived-in, right from the beginning, just the way I like my science fiction stories. From a Production Design standpoint, it also feels like a logical ‘next step’ for our modern society, with the omnipresent proliferation of computer technology into our lives; like drones and autonomous vehicles existing among the weeds of modern decay. So, props on the ‘world-building’, Whannell! Ya done good, kid! I will admit that I was a little hesitant about Logan Marshall-Green, as I’ve only seen him in a couple things and loathed him in one of them, which was ‘Prometheus (2012)’, but I warmed up to his character fairly quickly. It helped that they established a solid-seeming, believable relationship with his wife ‘Asha’ (Melanie Vallejo) prior to her getting off’d, as it added to the surprising emotional core at the centre of this flick. I also loved how Whannell directed Logan-Green for the sequences where STEM takes over. He really sells the idea of a man trapped inside his own body, watching as it destroys things…namely people. This was also helped by some inventive and kinetic camera-work, especially for scenes where STEM is in control. Cool angles and movements along with the action give the scenes the precise ‘robotic’ feel they need, often dropping back to ‘hand-held’ when STEM lets go. But when STEM is in the pilot seat…holy shit! The blood just flies! Admittedly, the R-rating on this one was another selling feature…and I was NOT disappointed! There are some gnarly kills peppered throughout this movie! Though not as plentiful, picture the gore levels in ‘Robocop’ (1987), if you need an idea. When people are shot or stabbed, blood flies and it doesn’t look like that lazy bullshit CG garbage that we see a lot of these days…it looks like big-ass blood squibs that probably hurt when they popped off. It was great! There’s one crazy decapitation-by-shotgun bit that, against my will, made me laugh out loud for how brazen it was. There’s also a fair supply of riveting hand-to-hand combat on display too, and more than once, I was reminded of the quick and exciting fight scenes in the ‘Bourne’ franchise. In fact, as mixed flavors go, I’d have to say that if you mashed ‘The Crow’ (1994), ‘John Wick’ (2014), the ‘Bourne’ flicks and ‘Ex Machina’ (2014) together…you’d have something approximating this one.
All in all, I say ‘Hats off!’ to Leigh Whannell for his second feature as Director. This bodes well for his future. I suspected I would enjoy this one, but I just didn’t know how much. Truth be told…I liked it a lot. The story is nothing new, you’ve seen all the elements before, but there’s something fresh in this presentation, bolstered by an effective lead performance by Logan-Green and an unapologetic mean-streak adding stakes to the proceedings. It’s a gritty, violent, fast-moving cyberpunk film noir with an inventive, clever approach to a simple story that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty as it moves along. It also helps that it’s guided along by a sweet ’80’s flavoured synth score…as it definitely owes to that time period for stylistic inspiration. I compared it earlier to ‘John Wick’ and I have to do it again. Like that film, I went into it not expecting much, but walked out highly satisfied. SO…as I admitted in the beginning…I’m that loser who went and saw two movies in one weekend. While I did enjoy both, albeit for very different reasons, Honesty forces me to cop to liking ‘Upgrade’ more than ‘Fallen Kingdom’. It was just a more visceral, satisfying Trip to The Movies! The visuals aren’t so spectacular that you NEED to see them on The Big Screen, but if you catch ‘Upgrade’ on disk or streaming, I can easily recommend it…just maybe not if you’re squeamish!
*This was one of those magical days were there was me and, like, one other person in the whole theatre. I love stretching out with my popcorn in the dark, Vitamin Water and Coffee Crisp Minis close at hand as I shut my mind off and go where ever this ambitious little thriller wants to take me. I was not let down.