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Upgrade

Year: 2018
Production Co: Blumhouse
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Simon Maiden

I happen to have a extremely tenuous connection to this film. I interviewed writer/director Leigh Whannell back when he was promoting Insidious 3 and he told me about it, including giving me the scoop about the then title, STEM.

He said how the staggering success from Saw gave he and his erstwhile filmmaking partner James Wan a different kind of cachet than they planned, and that he was interested in emulating a movie like The Terminator – small, cheap, neat sci-fi that had the chance to really break out.

Upgrade, as it was later called, didn't do Terminator-level business, but tripling its budget with what looked like a minuscule P&A spend (as is the Blumhouse way) was a very respectable result.

What I was more interested in however was how successful it would be creatively, and while it has some great ideas and an unexpected sense of humour, the direction wasn't exactly world-beating sci-fi. Maybe expecting Whannell's Terminator hadn't done me any favours.

It's the story of Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a guy five minutes in the future where cars are self driving and houses are digitally responsive to owners' needs. One night he delivers a car he's restored to an enigmatic computer billionaire, Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) along with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), and while driving home their car goes haywire, diverting them to a bad part of town and crashing violently.

Grey has barely rescued his wife from the wreck when they're set upon by a team of goons who kill her and leave him paralysed and left for dead. While recovering in hospital, Keen visits Grey to remind him about the experimental neural system they discussed the night of the murder, STEM, an implant that promises virtual superpowers. He tells Grey it can heal him, put him back on his feet, and make him ten times the man he was – including giving him the smarts and drive to find Asha's killers.

Grey refuses but months later, bereft and with no interest in life, he finally lets Keen convince him, agreeing to appear paralysed to everyone he knows so Keen can avoid the messy regulatory issues that are sure to spring up from STEM's use.

Once he heals from the surgery, Grey is startled to find the implant seems to have a separate consciousness, talking to him in a disembodied voice only he can hear and advising him on the best course of action at various points.

He starts on the trail of the killers, using police drone footage and the power of global information networks. When he breaks into the home of the first suspect and the guy comes home to discover him, STEM convinces Grey to let it take over his body to fight the guy off, and he turns into a lethal one man army, taking the guy down and getting the next clue in the investigation.

Grey is intoxicated by his newfound power, so you just know it's all going to go wrong and STEM is going to be more than it seems. It's not a bad sci-fi idea, although the device of having the implant talk telepathically to Grey reminded me a bit too much of the same stupid thing in Venom. There's some cool camerawork – you might have seen the shot in the trailer where Grey rises from the floor like a statue, point of view locked on and rising with him and with the background wheeling disconcertingly until it's upright – but Whannell falls too in love with it and it ends up a bit too overused.

But it does show an assured mastery over the staging and blocking and you can tell how Kubrick has been one of Whannell's influences. The same goes for the soundtrack, the deep thrums and sinister tones of which augment the tension on screen. It's also got an unexpectedly nasty streak that seems written into Whannell's filmmaking DNA since Saw, so it's certainly the best possible blend of where he came from and what he set out to do.

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