Review by James Lafortezza
“Help me write this review STEM,” says the writer to the AI implanted in his spine.
Oh how wonderful a world would be where AI’s could write things for me… or would it?
Upgrade is the story of a man who loses everything and then is promised “redemption” at a cost…or is it? It’s a classic dilemma throughout film history and Upgrade treads heavily on these well-trodden stories but injects it with a bit of much needed adrenaline. As seen from the trailers, Upgrade sells itself on one main thing: action. And it has that in spades. However, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the writing and performance should you find yourself in the theater.
Upgrade exists in the genre of simple concept/high execution films that are appearing more and more thanks to studios like Blumhouse Productions and companies like Netflix. In the same vein as fellow 2018 release A Quiet Place, Upgrade takes a simple, recognizable story and puts all its effort into making it as good as possible. This is a trend I could definitely see myself enjoying as long as projects like these continue getting funded! But enough about the future of low/micro budget films, and on to the review of Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade.
**Spoiler Free Zone** Upgrade is the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) living in a world that is leaving him behind. He builds old cars for rich buyers and lives with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) when tragedy strikes and he is separated from both Asha and his spine, leaving him a desperate quadriplegic.
Obviously the action and gruesome violence were the big selling points for the film and it delivers on both of those fronts. The first fight is the most gruesome and shocking, with quite a “jaw-dropping” ending that left people in the audience saying “Oh my god!” (no one seemed to mind the break of etiquette). The subsequent fights increase in style but decrease in gore, which could be good or bad depending on what you want out of the movie. The infusion of dark, nearly black comedy in the fights is delicately handled with only a few well-timed quips here and there adds some brevity to the intense violence. The “bickering couple” relationship between STEM and Grey is fun and harkens to other famous human/AI relationships in entertainment such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Portal Series. While funny, the comedy also reinforces the dichotomy between Grey and STEM. Where Grey’s head is thematically detached from his lower half through his body’s ability to fight inhumanly well versus his head’s confusion and borderline unwillingness, coupled with his coping mechanism, humor. But let’s talk about the lower 90% of his body…
All praise should go to the choreographer of this film. The choreography is always top notch, drawing echoes of The Raid: Redemption and John Wick in the inventiveness and brutality along with focus on the skills of the actors in the fights rather than editing around their weaknesses. Each punch, kick, and stab is complimented by impressive sound design and stunt performances which add a visual and auditory weight that many action films seem to forget. While each fight scene moves at a breakneck speed, they are never hard to follow. The camera stays decently wide throughout the scenes, giving the audience just the necessary amount of room to breathe before plunging us into close ups of Grey’s confused face as his body works independently of him. The other impressive part of the choreography is Marshall-Green and his stunt double, Chris Weir’s, physical performance.
Both actors performed some amazing stunt work, alternating scenes based on Green’s comfort with potential mistakes. When talking about the most gruesome fight of the film with writers at Rue-Morgue, Green said “…my stunt double Chris Weir took it, because I didn’t dare be the guy who f****d that up! I did the next one.” (Interview) It’s always good to hear that actors are doing their own stunts and staying safe *cough* Tom Cruise *cough* and the degree of skill displayed by Green and Weir is impressive. The once familiar body to Grey, now given over to STEM, has now entered the uncanny valley complete with jerky, robotic movements and an inhuman speed and flexibility… Which is impressive because it’s just a human that has enough control over his body to make it seem in-human.
Finally, the editing and cinematography complimented each other to create a highly unique fight scene style. With the third-person-view centering on Grey throughout the combat, the background swings wildly around as Grey (budget Tom Hardy) remains stabilized in the frame. This is also neatly complimented by the sound design with whirs and computerized effects whenever Grey, and camera, lurches about under STEM’s control. In addition to the foley and sfx, the soundtrack by Jed Palmer is a very Chemical Brother’s Hanna experience of futuristic experimental electronic music, complimenting the hi-tech brutality of the film. All of these pieces come together to help fill up the few set pieces of the film, breathing life into a world that is caught half between sleek ultra-modern designs/ideas and the dying world we live in currently.
In conclusion, a simple script, crazy action, and simple world building all mix together to make a fun popcorn movie experience with equal amounts of shlock and shock. If you don’t think too hard, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the film’s conclusion, and maybe, you’ll find it isn’t as dumb as you thought. It was completely worth my MoviePass price and honestly, I would pay full price if MoviePass didn’t exist. Made for 3-6 million dollars, it’s impressive the production quality they can drain from that micro-budget. At the current time, Upgrade has made $8 million in theaters, following in the steps of Moonlight, The Big Sick, and Wind River, and proving that limited release indie films can be enjoyable and successful.
In the end, it was a movie that could have done more, but was satisfying as it stands currently. It raises some interesting philosophical ideas about the future of technology and AI without getting too heady, which is perfect for a film so focused on delivering a slick and fun experience. Upgrade is comfortable in the way a pair of new jeans are, you’ve seen something similar before but it looks different enough, and that is refreshing. Grey’s wife Ash sums up how to approach this movie the best when Grey asks, “When technology takes over, what are guys like me supposed to do?” and she replies “Enjoy the ride.”
I give Upgrade a broken arm in a cool way/10