Upgrade Review

This is basically the same thing as “Software Upgrade” by Poppy.

Not really.

When I saw the trailer for this movie, I thought it would be a movie that had a great concept, but would ultimately fail to capitalize on the potential of the idea. I thought the filmmakers would have a cool opening that teased the potential of this concept, but the rest of the film would lose it’s focus and forget what people came to see. I was predicting somewhere between a 4 and a 6/10, a disappointment considering the excellent concept.

I hoped I was wrong.

Upgrade is about a man named Grey who is attacked in a seemingly random mugging which results in the murder of his wife and his loss of mobility from the neck down. A billionaire approaches him with a device named STEM that he claims will give him back his mobility. Not only does it reanimate him, it gives him seemingly superhuman strength and mobility, which he uses to track down those who killed his wife.

This movie is written by Leigh Whannell, writer of a good amount of contemporary horror movies. Most notably, he’s written Insidious 1-4, Dead Silence, and Saw 1-3. I love the first Saw. The sequels give the whole series the reputation of nothing more than torture porn, but the first was actually a pretty excellent crime/horror movie. It had it’s flaws, sure, but they paled in comparison to everything the movie did right. The acting was all great, it looked good, they ran with the terrifying concept which made it constantly intriguing to watch, the cop story was compelling, but the part that matters for this review is the writing. The writing in Saw is great. It’s told from two perspectives, one from the people in the main trap, and one from the cops investigating Jigsaw interweave and fulfill each other is beautifully done, the dialogue is good, the characters are well-defined and fun to watch, and that’s all thanks to Leigh Whannell’s writing. Unfortunately, He wouldn’t go on to write anything up to Saw’s quality.

Until now. Upgrade is even better than Saw. Surprised? Me too.

Because it’ll flow better for reading purposes, let’s talk about the writing. This is simultaneously one of the strongest and weakest parts of the film. On one hand, the interactions between Grey and Stem are excellent. Whannell takes full advantage of the whole “voice in your head” dynamic and it’s great. In addition, most of the logical conclusions you could reach when trying to rationalize or disprove something in the movie are reached by the script, making the world (which we’ll get to later) all the more believable. But on the other hand, the cop stuff isn’t nearly as compelling as anything going on with Grey. This movie also has the dual plotline thing from Saw, but in my opinion it’s not done as well. At least the movie spends way more time on Grey. Speaking of Grey…

Grey’s the best part of the movie. Not because everything else is poor and he is the only good thing about it, but because everything about him is exceptional. Logan Marshall-Green gives a career-best performance, not only in how he plays him emotionally, but also physically. This performance is unique because Grey’s body is not under his control. When he fights, STEM takes over and does everything for him. When he’s using STEM to walk normally, it feels slightly automated. I struggled to describe this aspect of his performance because it’s very subtle. It’s not like he’s constantly doing the robot, but it’s a little inhuman. It’s like he’s being controlled by some kind of computer or something.

Oh wait.

Green had the challenge of separating the actions of his body from the emotions of his face, and he did it beautifully. The first fight is probably the best example of this, because Grey hadn’t yet gotten used to what STEM can do. He smashes dishes on the guy’s head with a horrified expression on his face, he screams about his enemy grabbing a knife while his body effortlessly dodges every strike, it’s creative and fun. The choreography designed for both Grey and the camera is amazing. You read that correctly. The camera’s got choreography. It flips and tilts and jerks about in a manner similar to the robotic acrobatics Grey does throughout, and it’s such a great change from typical action shakycam. Come to think of it, there’s another abnormality worth mentioning.

The way this movie establishes it’s fictional universe is the way that most people should: silently. Everything that we need to know is introduced without any dialogue. The movie knows that if we see a drone with police lights on it, we don’t need to be told that it’s a police drone. They know that if we see a futuristic looking car, we don’t need to be told what year it is. It’s the future. Everyone in the movie knows it’s the future. That’s good enough. This extends to all the characters as well, I can’t recall any scene like the one in Big Hero 6 where the main character’s brother says “what would mom and dad think?” and the main character replies “I don’t know! They died when I was 3, remember?” Are you stupid, Hiro? You’re talking to your BROTHER. THE ONLY OTHER PERSON ON EARTH WHO WOULD BE AS FAMILIAR WITH YOUR PARENT’S DEATH AS YOU ARE.

That kind of exposition really infuriates me, and too many filmmakers use it. Thankfully, this movie has none of it.

The way the movie’s plot unfolds is done conventionally, but the movie’s aware of this. It doesn’t beat around the bush, it cuts to the chase and… Well, I’d say it just gets to what we all came to see, but that makes everything other than the action seem inconsequential. It’s not. This movie’s more than just a fun ride with some awesome action and flashy filmmaking, which is why I was so surprised by it.

There’s a sequence where Grey’s new routine as a quadriplegic is established after his wife dies that really stuck out to me. Throughout most of the sequence, Grey is completely silent. What could he say? It’s all there in his face. He’s a handyman who can’t use his hands, and on top of that, he lost his wife in a brutal and senseless act. He might have a big house, a fancy wheelchair, a good amount of money, but he’s despondent beyond belief. The only thing that mattered to him is gone. No one said any of that in the movie, by the way. Logan Marshall-Green’s just a really good actor. As I watched, I realized something: this is one of the most realistic portrayals of depression I’ve seen in a while, and that’s because of it’s silence. It’s subtle, quietly eating away at Grey. It does everything¬†13 Reasons Why should have done, and it’s a sequence that lasts for five minutes, maybe longer. That blew me away.

Because of how stylized the fights are, you’d be reasonable in assuming that the rest of the movie is similarly stylized. You’d be correct. The rest of the movie has a gloomily bright aesthetic accomplished by its’ many neon lights and LCD screens. You get the feeling that everyone is miserable, but they can’t exactly help it. That’s the world they live in. The cinematography is also great, with the best examples living in the fights, an aspect of the film that I will never stop praising. Another thing about the fights: they’re gory. And the gore is disgustingly convincing. This is probably par for the course for Leigh Whannell, as most of his films have involved some kind of body horror, but it’s still worth mentioning. Especially considering the budget. Oh yeah, this film technically counts as microbudget. They had a budget of $3-5 million dollars and they made a movie that looks like it was made with a $30 million budget. Amazing.

The movie’s also a good commentary on technology reliance. On one hand, technology has wonderful medical application. Grey’s body is fixed by a piece of technology that wouldn’t have been possible maybe a decade before. On the other hand, there’s an underlying theme of human irrelevancy throughout the film. Most people drive automated cars, some even have robots in their kitchens that cook for them. Whannell said in an interview “It seems to me the human instinct is to always make things easier. We’re always leaping towards convenience: “Oh, wouldn’t it be better if a machine could do that? I’m wondering where that road ends. The movie was definitely a reflection of that, too.”

As I thought about this movie more, I grew to like it more. Even love it. It’s a microbudget indie sci-fi film with a fleshed-out world, believable characters, excellent action, good writing, and absolutely NO ties to anything else. It’s not a big franchise movie, not a summer blockbuster, it’s entirely original and it’s own thing. I don’t give out points for originality (Unfriended is original, and it’s hot garbage), but the fact that this movie capitalized on the coolness of it’s concept and made an awesome movie with it certainly doesn’t hurt.


Up next: something incredible.

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