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SXSW Review: Upgrade

Let’s cut to the chase: Leigh Whannell’s genre-splicing extravaganza Upgrade is the defining midnight movie of SXSW and almost certainly of the year. Jaw-droppingly creative, unapologetically brutal, and overflowing with franchise potential, it’s a charged-up, out-for-blood rollercoaster of a flick that recalls Verhoeven, Cronenberg, and Cameron in equal measure without ever letting those influences derail its writer-director’s delightfully twisted approach to his personalized, techno-paranoiac hellscape. 

Whannell is best-known for his pioneering work in horror alongside director James Wan; the pair’s deviously clever Saw franchise ignited a whole wave of sadistic gut-churners, adding a nihilistic wrinkle to fierce post-9/11 debates over the morality of torture. Their Insidious franchise did the same for the faded haunted-house subgenre, utilizing analog aesthetics to paint its chilling tale of a family unit faced with destruction from outside forces (another very of-the-moment anxiety) as particularly timeless. 

Now, Whannell’s Upgrade promises to have a similarly explosive effect on the sci-fi thriller, cannily updating ‘80s body horror for the era of AI and smart technology. Think RoboCop meets Blade Runner with a healthy dash of eXistenZ and just a pinch of the Matrix trilogy, and you’ll be close to grasping the sheer breadth of Whannell’s vision here. 

Upgrade is one of those movies it’s best to go into with minimal prior knowledge of the events about to unfold on screen, but it’s permissible to explain that protagonist Grey Trace, portrayed in a remarkably physical performance from Logan Marshall-Green (as brilliantly complicated here as he was in Cinemax’s gone-too-soon Quarry), is a simple, hard-working mechanic, all but left behind in a world that’s maybe too eagerly embraced self-driving smartcars and all manner of technology intended to minimize strain on the human body. Even his wife (Melanie Vallejo) can’t help but regard his gearhead tendencies through a veil of curious bemusement, working high up on the food chain at an AI firm as the family breadwinner.

One night, Grey’s closely-held suspicions about humankind’s reliance on all these high-tech advancements come home to roost when, returning home from a visit to tech wunderkind Eron Vessel (Harrison Gilbertson), the couple’s vehicle is hacked by a hit squad. Still reeling from a near-fatal crash, Grey watches in horror, paralyzed by a nasty gunshot to his spinal cord, as a sneering nasty with a gun for an arm shoots his wife at point blanc range. He wakes up in the hospital as a quadriplegic, with little hope of enacting revenge against his would-be assassins. With only grainy surveillance footage to go on, they’ve evaporated into the mist, leaving a well-meaning detective (“Get Out” breakout Betty Gabriel, killing the genre pics at SXSW this year between this and “Unfriended 2”) with a whole lot of nothing to bring back to Grey.

Enter Eron, who stops by Grey’s bedside with an unorthodox proposal: that Grey voluntarily submit to a chip implant known as STEM that could fuse back together the severed connections between his spinal chord and his limbs, giving him full control over his body again. Grey agrees, only to find that the surgery comes with one, unexpected side effect: STEM is essentially sentient, speaking directly to Grey and advising him on the best plan of attack once he begins going after his wife’s killers. The chip implant is all data and analytics; Grey, meanwhile, is still a twitching mess of grief and rage, newly enabled to put his once-atrophying fists to skull-cracking, back-breaking work. 

Especially once Grey realizes he can grant STEM permission to “take over,” turning him into a killing machine that moves (and slaughters) with robotic precision, the two find common ground as a particularly murderous buddy-cop duo, a Cagney and LaCie bent on dispensing their own merciless brand of justice. An early-on scene finds the pair interrogating a thug at knifepoint in a bar bathroom, STEM flicking Grey’s wrist around the guy’s face, carving a Jack-O-Lantern from it as Grey looks away, wincing. Whannell’s a whip-smart writer and director, and he nails the pitch-black comedy in these moments, Grey practically begging his opponents not to get up from the floor as STEM lays waste to them.

A lesser director would commit to this super-cop routine without plumbing its darker realities, but Whannell presents the dynamic between Grey and STEM as a sinister microcosm, exemplifying the struggle between man and machine that he hints the denizens of his thoroughly thought-through future may have already lost. 

Whether it’s the ubiquity of cars that entirely dictate the safety of their passengers, the fully automated nature of Grey’s live-in tech while paralyzed, or the prevalence of immersive VR technology that users surrender to as if hooking up to heroin needles, Whannell’s vision is unquestionably rooted in modern-day anxieties about how willingly we should cede control to breakneck digital advancements. It’s bleak but lived-in, horrifying primarily in how just-around-the-corner it feels. 

The new season of Black Mirror features no less than four episodes (there’s an argument it’s five) in which its protagonists struggle with the idea of involuntary entrapment, the idea that the tech we’re so thoughtlessly normalizing will eventually trap us in a cloud-based prison of our own making, gaining such dominion over our lives – and sentience over its own actions – that it can choose (even if in service of the instantaneously calculated then recalculated greater good) to permanently take the wheel. Whannell, his finger on the sociocultural pulse as always, seems similarly attuned to this fear, no doubt as concerned by news of Facebook’s data mining and impossibly deadly drone bombers abroad as the rest of us. At what point do we stop “allowing” tech entrance to our lives? At what point does it stop asking? What’s really in those terms and conditions? And how do the tech bigwigs ensure the tech they’re creating, bent on efficiency and self-sustenance, will abide by such terms as agreeably as consumers?

STEM, as voiced by Simon Maiden, evokes 2001’s HAL and T2: Judgment Day’s T-1000 one minute, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Jarvis the next; the implant is a delectably evil straight-man to Grey’s wounded, end-of-his-tether vigilante, icily rational and always patiently waiting to do things better, more effectively, than Grey could ever hope to, what with his fleshy human brain and inexorable exhaustion. It’s the ideal villain for Upgrade, a movie that doesn’t deny the capability of futuristic technology so much as ruminate on the consequences of its implementation. Maiden’s voice work is paramount to nailing STEM’s duality here, at first suggesting strategy as if warmly coaching a Little Leaguer from the sidelines, then (at the literal flip of a switch) turning darker, colder, more quietly and matter-of-factly threatening. Much of the horror in Upgrade comes from Grey’s internal realization that the control he thought he was regaining thanks to his implant may be once more at risk, in a way he’s powerless to prevent.  

That STEM so kinetically manipulates Grey’s limbs as they embark on their bloody quest for vengeance is not a visual wasted on Whannell, who executes some remarkably creative kills and depicts each with a mixture of grim ultraviolence and incredulous humor. In fact, Whannell plays up at every turn the sheer ghoulishness of mankind’s fusing with machinery, the unnatural conditions such mergers can create. The aforementioned men with guns for hands are futuristic freaks of nature, their skin warped and lacerated by the intrusion of dull copper plating that protrudes from their forearms much like shrapnel in a wound. Upgrade is ‘80s steampunk lovingly reinterpreted as body-shop body horror, the most fitting tone possible for engineer-cum-executioner Grey and the gritty, haunted universe he inhabits. 

There’s so much to praise about Upgrade – from the commitment it displays to its dark take on AI to Whannell’s mercenary use of a tiny Blumhouse budget to build a world more fully realized than other directors have managed with five times as much – that it’s easy to overlook one of the most impressive elements of this slick sci-fi riff: namely, how relentlessly fun it is to watch. Marshall-Green’s previously unearthed comic timing, Whannell’s genre-smart script, the wild and frankly unexpected inventiveness of the action choreography, the flesh-and-steel realism of the film’s neon-hued dystopia, the admittedly requisite twists and turns that still hold traction in light of the pent-up energy brought to them by all involved – Upgrade expertly employs every tool at its disposal without ever feeling like a robotic, made-by-committee release. Rather, this is an arm-cannon burst of genre-movie passion, a reverent hat-tip to sci-fi legends past that seeks to ignite nothing less than a full-on renaissance of the movies that put them all on the map. 

Big-budget science-fiction has been experiencing a dramatic upswing in popularity these past few years, thanks primarily to the elegant, existential pondering of Alex Garland (Ex MachinaAnnihilation) and the weighty philosophy of Denis Villeneuve (ArrivalBlade Runner 2049). Beautiful though they are, there’s an aloof, alienating quality to these sci-fi masterpieces, a sense that in seeking the thinking man” they’ve retreated (maybe too much) inside their own heads. What they’re sacrificing, one could argue, is the blood and sweat a genre savant like Whannell brings to the table, as well as his ability to craft something gregariously entertaining from such grimy parts. His closest genre contemporary, as it turns out, may be Neill Blomkamp, a filmmaker with big ideas and a similarly scrappy visual eye who hasn’t been able to corral a clean narrative since District 9. To look at what else is crowding the field of lo-fi sci-fi is to realize Whannell has – in a single film – established himself as a filmmaker a cut above the rest. Upgrade is right.

9/10

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