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Australian Leigh Whannell, writer of Saw and The Mule and former bathtub-bound local film reviewer, fires all futuristic guns a-blazin’ with a pulpy, pacey, punchy science fiction romp about a quadriplegic who embarks on a violent AI-assisted revenge spree.
In Upgrade, Whannell’s second film as a director (following Insidious: Chapter 3), the protagonist is given a second chance at life (like Seconds) by putting a computer inside his body (like The Terminal Man) that talks to and befriends him (like Her) but is far from a pushover (like HAL from 2001, or the existentially troubled bomb from Dark Star) and blurs the line between human and machine (like Robocop).
Upgrade is a veritable cornucopia of genre thrills and spills, machine-tooled for fans of action-packed sci-fi. Influences and inspirations are strewn all over the place – from Cronenbergian body horror to Verhoevenian schlock to a dank Ridley Scott or Denis Villeneuve “world gone wrong” aesthetic, infused with a scuzzy grindhouse vibe.
The story revolves around mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) who we learn likes his machines old fashioned and non-augmented, which makes him a sadistically appealing choice for a super-advanced computer to inhabit.
Early in the piece, Grey makes a delivery to a client, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) whose home looks like a Mona video art installation project, complete with simulated electronic cloud on the wall regulating room temperature. It is the not-too-distant future, with state of the art (but bizarrely fallible) drones and surveillance tech. Grey’s wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), has a self-driving car, which looks like a gold-plated, Christopher Nolan-era batmobile, and drops them at an unexpected location. There she is shot dead by a transhuman mugger (who has a gun embedded into his arm) and Grey narrowly survives, now confined to a wheelchair.
Eron, an aloof tech guru, offers to implant Grey with a chip that will give him back use of his body, though he will have to share it with a computer. Grey of course says yes. This premise-establishing intro concludes with Whannell aping Mary Shelley and/or James Whale: an “it’s alive” moment with the protagonist raising from an operating table, mere mortal now upgraded to fancy-fangled beast. To accompany the protagonist’s new, digitally enhanced life the director introduces behind the back shots, which connote a slightly impersonal visual message to complement Logan Marshall-Green’s robotic-like gait and the overarching message that he is no longer truly himself.
Grey tracks down the low lives that killed his wife, visiting crummy honkytonks. He can turn into a seemingly undefeatable fighter by giving the computer permission to take control of his body. During moments of close combat fistcuffs, the director indulges in frenetic editing and frame-flipping shots, but shows relative restraint in the non-fighting sequences. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio (whose credits include Jungle and Backtrack) infuses his images with deep, high-contrast lighting and a gaudy colour scheme: trashy electric blues; deep Dario Argento style reds; burning voltaic oranges.
Told in the tradition of a grab-bag genre film, blending the bits and pieces of countless properties, innovation in Upgrade tends to come in snack-size bursts. During one scene, chief bad guy Fisk (Benedict Hardie) performs a malicious sneeze attack, summoning from his mouth a tiny computer that flies into the nostrils of his opponent. A terrifying man to be around when he has the sniffles.
High art this is not but despite the midnight movie vibe and cheerfully derivative narrative Whannell has some serious things on his mind, including commentary about high-performing humans of the future. Our future intellectuals and athletes, the writer-director argues, will not be the most educated or trained, but the best programmed and the most artificially enhanced.
In the age of transhumanism – and augmented, virtual and God knows what other forms of reality – that salient message feels relevant and even pressing. Given Whannell’s obvious love of genre elements, it would be easy – but not accurate – to suggest he has rested on his laurels. Quite the opposite: Upgrade is better and sassier than many of the films it takes inspiration from.
• Upgrade is in Australian cinemas now
Source: The Guardian
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