SXSW Film Review: Upgrade
Cyberpunk action thriller has a few hidden features
By Richard Whittaker,
9:54PM, Mon. Mar. 19, 2018
Science fiction has long posited the idea of the ghost in the machine, Arthur C. Clarke's term for the consciousness in the computer, AI before AI was a thing. But what, asks cyberpunk action-thriller Upgrade, if it's the human mind that's the virtual specter?
While it's known for horror, Blumhouse has been built on experimentation and diversity. However, its BH Tilt sub-label was founded in 2014 to extend its portfolio even further; now revamped through a deal with Neon, the imprint is pushing even more boundaries. With SXSW Midnighter audience award Upgrade, it is definitely taking some creative risks.
First up, it's a near-future, cyberpunk-tinged tale, which (bar Blade Runner and The Matrix) has a spotty track record at the box office. Moreover, Insidious creator Leigh Whannell's script has been sitting around since at least 2010, and was even announced in 2013 as a follow-up to Predestination for the Spierig brothers.
Finally, Whannell pulled the trigger on the script himself, which was probably a good idea to hit the tone he wanted for a story that is intended to leave the audience uneasy.
Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) is Grey Trace, the unwillingly cyber-enhanced protagonist, left paralyzed after a seemingly deliberate car crash and attack by a heavily and unusually armed gang (headed with freezing charm by Benedict Hardie). An analog guy in a digital age, a hot rod grease monkey in a world of self-driving cars, his path to mobility and revenge comes from an Elon Musk-esque technocrat (Harrison Gilbertson) and an implanted chip that will seal the gap between the two severed sides of his spinal cord. Which seems fine until the chip (named STEM) starts talking to Grey (in the voice of Simon Maiden).
There's a moral ambiguity at the heart of Upgrade that plays to Whannell's strengths as a writer; after all, his Saw franchise was built around asking if the victims were worse people than a man who built death traps as machines of penance. But here the ambiguity is about complicity: As the newly refurbed Grey finds himself facing down augmented mercenaries, he hands control of his body to STEM, resulting in some of the most ingeniously shot close-combat action sequences of the last few years. But just because STEM is the one handing out the beat-downs, does that really let the man in the head off the hook? It's an interesting enigma, and one Whannell dances around without ever providing clear answers.
Those fights (the big and easy selling point of the movie) deliberately sit at odds with the rest of the story, which is really about a man drowning in his sorrow, never really capable of restarting his life. It's a mournful tone that may catch crowds seeking 90 minutes of rock 'em sock 'em slobberknocker off guard. Whannell clearly nods to Robocop in his tale of a man caught in a machine, but his near-future is more like Rollerball in its bleakness. For the ambition alone, it's worth the watch; for its daring approach, and another effortless depiction of a broken soul from Marshall-Green, it's definitely worth freeing up space in your wetware.
Midnighters, World Premiere