Thursday, 21 June 2018

Upgrade (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After a mugging leaves mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) a quadraplegic and kills his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), he struggles with adjusting to life without being able to fend for himself. However, when tech whiz Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) offers him a chance to walk again through an experimental microchip called STEM (Simon Maiden), Grey has the chance to both reclaim his life and take revenge against the muggers that nearly took it from him.

Marshall-Green is terrific as our lead, getting across some very real and unnerving emotion in the wake of his accident, and whether he’s engaging with words, fists or knives, he sells every reaction he gives. Vallejo serves largely as another example of ‘fridging’ (having a female character injured, killed or otherwise attacked as an impetus for the male lead to take action), which is rather annoying to see anywhere full stop, but credit to her for being able to sell the connection between her and Marshall-Green. She may be the victim-for-hire in this equation, but it at least feels like this is a relationship that would warrant Grey’s eventual reactions. Maiden as the voice of STEM taps into some familiar tropes of the inhuman AI (there’s quite a bit of HAL 9000 worship going on with his delivery here) but shows enough of a distinct personality behind its words and its intent to make everything from the darkly humourous interactions to the morbidly unnerving connection between him and the lead land on solid ground.
Betty Gabriel as the resident detective investigating the main plot works out alright, even if she never manages to go much further than ‘adequate’, Gilbertson is good as the socially-reclusive tinkerer (yet another stock character for the plot to utilise, admittedly) and Benedict Hardie as the murderous Fisk makes for a very intimidating presence with moments of cyberpunk rebellion in his workings.

Just looking at the character types mentioned already (the grieving spouse, the socially-awkward genius, the inquisitive detective, etc.), this story is looking a bit rocky on the surface. The feeling of heavy familiarity continues with the film’s use of technology and its connection to human identity, the sort of sci-fi examination that the Wachowskis built their name on, complete with the inclusion of a computer hacker who is non-gender-binary. As much as I feel I should be taking more issue with how derivative this can feel at times, that would end up underselling just how good writer/director Leigh Whannell is at wielding those influences. His skills as a writer, despite what his connection to films like Saw and Insidious may paint him out to be, have always been with the human element. Even when he was working on the Saw films, he was always more interested in the characters themselves than coming up with inventive ways to slaughter them.
That trend stays true with this feature, as while the film at large deals in questions surrounding technology and artificial intelligence, it never loses sight of the humanity of the characters. The trailers depict this as an action flick, and yet the film begins on a rather sobering note as we look at how Grey’s world has been shattered by what happened to him and his wife.

This serves as a healthy bedrock for the film’s forms of engagement, which range from darkly-tinged comedy to harrowing drama to cyberpunk bombast, all of which are handled superbly. Whannell’s humanistic writing allows for the more jocular moments, mostly connected to the idea of Grey being a merciless killing machine and yet appearing to be a quadriplegic, to hit without feeling too mean-spirited. Hell, I actually think the core joke of people chronically underestimating the disabled man in the room is a pretty cool idea, speaking as a person with disabilities. The action beats are very well-choreographed, making a lot of use out of the dichotomy of Grey’s body and STEM’s intent to make for some nice physical blocking, while Stefan Duscio’s camera work employs all the tilts to give the scenes a certain unease that does wonders for the film’s bigger goals. Credit too to Andy Canny’s editing, who manages to let the camera work disorient where necessary, but not to the point where it becomes incoherent. It strikes a nice balance between control and chaos.

So, the technical aspects of the production are solid; what about the story they’re in service to? Well, Whannell’s version of a near-future sci-fi landscape is one that feels eerily close to our own, even considering the advancements in technology. Prior to the film starting at my screening, there was an ad for Can I Fly There?, an Australian smartphone app for checking where people are allowed to fly drones. Considering drones and drone surveillance in particular are key aspects of the narrative, that made all of this feel a little too real. Which, of course, is the point. That proximity to real-world technology, just made slightly more prevalent in everyday life, makes the film’s questions concerning how humans use technology feel like they need to be asked. Amidst the very revenge-thriller trappings of Grey’s story, the tone is very Black Mirror-esque in how it emphasises not the technology itself, but rather how it is used and how it affects those that use it. As far as world-building goes on top of that, between the mentions of numerous technology companies vying for business and power and the Old Bones pub that is as off-the-grid as it’s possible to get in a digital sense, it isn’t the most fleshed-out I’ve seen for a sci-fi story but it definitely makes it feel like effort was put into the logistics of this world.

Of course, beyond any deeper ideas of lore to do with the story, the element that takes the spotlight overall is the relationship between man and machine. It’s one of the oldest tropes in sci-fi history, and with how much human ingenuity continues to advance at an ever-increasing rate, it’s also a trope that will likely always be relevant for a given audience. Apart from the now-prevalent use of drones, something that even the world of cinema itself has taken on-board for its capabilities with establishing and over-head shots, we as a species tend to rely on technology for a great many things. I mean, I’m currently writing this review on a laptop that I have been using extensively for the last 2-3 years; I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up that I am no exception to that rule.

But as our understanding of the human animal grows through medical and psychological sciences, and our construction of artificial intelligence advances alongside it, there’s questions to be raised as far as when enough is enough. Is there a point where we end up augmenting our lives and our bodies so much that it’s no longer ours? Theseus’ paradox could easily be invoked here to examine that question, but that would indicate that our relationship with technology is a one-way street. Even with how advanced our tech becomes, there are still things that only human minds and human flexibility are able to do. Hell, even with the increase in digital technology, analog is still a standard for a lot of people because of its reliability.
Grey and STEM essentially share the same body once the titular Upgrade takes place, but it’s a far more symbiotic connection than at first glance. Grey wants to be able to do things for himself again after the assault, but he still requires a machine to do so. STEM is able to restore Grey’s mobility, and even enhance it as shown in the fight scenes, but he still requires Grey’s permission to do so. As the story carries on, and we see how STEM’s place as an allegory for Grey’s own want for revenge blossoms (pretty interesting take on the revenge thriller, having the figurative voice in the back of his head be a literal voice), the film asks a very simple, very straight-forward and very terrifying question: Is Grey the one who is getting upgraded, regaining his mobility, or is it STEM, gaining access to an organic computer far beyond even its own capabilities?

All in all, Leigh Whannell has knocked it right out of the park and confirmed his place as a bona fide filmmaker with this one. The acting is terrific, with Logan Marshall-Green giving a very intense and even humourous performance, the action scenes are gloriously energetic and even allow for some decent gore, the direction allows for disorientation but not too much of it as to make the film unpleasant to watch in any visceral way, and the writing balances Whannell’s penchant for character examination with a deep dive into societal commentary on technology that reveals a lot of the good, bad and outright freakish that tech is capable of. And given how much tech continues to advance to this day, the reality of this film may not be as far away as we may think. It’s a healthy mixture of body horror, revenge action and sci-fi drama that shows Whannell to be a very nimble, if somewhat derivative, storyteller and between this and his work on Insidious: Chapter 3, I am quite happy to see that he’s doing well for himself.

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