UPGRADE: Another Featured

Imagine at your lowest point—lost, isolated, suicidal—someone comes to you. They offer you a deal that objectively seems too good to be true. Under normal circumstances, warning bells would be screaming. At this moment, though, your defenses have been obliterated. You reach for the deal because what else can you do? Even if it proves a false salvation, at least it gives you back hope for however long before the lie is revealed. Anyway, nothing could be worse than feeling this low, this trapped. Right? UPGRADE answers that question is lurid, splendid detail

UPGRADE: Robot Eyes
Benedict Hardie’s eyes betray his true self in a closeup from UPGRADE. (Courtesy of Blumhouse Tilt)

The Plot of UPGRADE

Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green, a.k.a the American Tom Hardy) has become the man facing that dilemma.

An old school “I want to work with my hands” type in a time that has largely embraced technology, Grey has awkwardly fit himself into the world. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), works for a tech company on the rise, has the self-driving car, the whole nine yards. Meanwhile, Grey hides in the garage from the smart house’s omnipresent check-ins. He restores classic muscle cars, an occupation so niche the film implies he literally has only one customer.

That customer, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), appears to be a genius heading the most powerful company of the moment, Vessel. After Asha tries to promote her company, Keen reveals STEM. STEM, a tiny microchip, may as well be magic the way Keen describes it. There is no injury that STEM cannot “fix,” Keen implies. Grey, unsurprisingly, reacts dismissively.

However, a self-driving car malfunction puts the couple in a bad part of town and easy pickings for a gang. The Fisk gang, led by a bandana-wearing man spewing populist rancor (Benedict Hardie), get violent. When the smoke clears, Asha lies dead with Grey paralyzed due to a severed spine. This is Grey’s lowest point. Keen arrives offering STEM, that too good to be true chance at a better life. Grey, despite his distaste and distrust of cutting edge tech, says yes.

As incredible as Keen promises STEM to be, somehow, he undersold it. With STEM as a sort of invisible but talkative sidekick, Grey suddenly has leads on Asha’s murderers that the police don’t. Moreover, when Grey confronts the first member of the gang, he finds that STEM is not just smart, observant, and capable of reconnecting a severed spine. No, STEM can fight.

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The Writing

If it sounds ludicrous, well, it is. The key to director Leigh Whannell’s script comes from the fact that it never nudges you in the ribs. It takes the premise seriously, but not itself. The laughs it gets are intentional but never at the cost of the reality of the world. It buys in and, in no time, the viewer does as well.

As alluded to above, the script does a have a sense of humor. Despite the dark material, the interactions between STEM and Grey pulse with sly humor. STEM is all bone dry observation and socially unaware corrections. Meanwhile, Grey fluctuates between exasperation and exhilaration, ringing laughs from both.

The screenplay also wields efficiency to great effect. Rather than waste time on an incredibly convoluted science that is ultimately meaningless anyway—see RAMPAGE (or don’t)—UPGRADE keeps it quick and dirty. As a result, it paradoxically seems more plausible.

Even better, it does not bog us down on details. STEM connects the severed spine to the rest of the nerves because it does. Also, it can do nearly anything a human can to superhuman effect because it can. Brief, straightforward, and lets us get right to the good stuff.

UPGRADE: I think I got it!
Logan Marshall-Green stuns himself in UPGRADE. (Courtesy of Blumhouse Tilt)

Casting the Lead of UPGRADE

Logan Marshall-Green is perfect as Grey Trace. He wears his technophobia easily, bristling, but never over-the-top. He complains about it like one complains about the potholes on the way to work. It is half-hearted because it has become so commonplace. He can’t do anything about it, but he still wants to register his distaste.

Marshall-Green also wields his facial expressions better than in his previous work. His reaction to his first fight, a mix of shock and horror, manages to be both insightful and funny. His brooding—something I did know he had down pat—never crosses the line into parody.

Additionally, his ambivalence towards STEM feels right and real. He loves being able to walk and, more importantly, punish those that paralyzed him and killed his wife. However, simultaneously, Grey did not live a violent life. He does not want to kill. To nail both of those poles without making either feel melodramatic or undercooked is tough. Nonetheless, Marshall-Green does it.

Finally, Marshall-Green’s physical acting is dead-on. Finding the right size of performance for the moment in this movie is difficult. If his acting is too small for the moment he gets the ability to move again, the scene will miss the necessary triumph and horror. Too big will be showy. Marshall-Green finds the right frequency every time.

His movements post-STEM also have a nice, subtle squared off nature that grows or shrinks depending on how involved STEM is. Interestingly, however, Marshall-Green makes Grey most fluid post-surgery when he and STEM are working entirely in concert. Similarly, he is most herky-jerky when they are at odds with one another, including a climactic moment that plays as pure body horror without a bit of bloodshed. In other words, Marshall-Green has never been better.

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Casting the Voice of UPGRADE

Simon Maiden as STEM’s voice does excellent work too. With the slightest of voice inflections, he gives us an impressive range of emotions. He never stops being robotic. Still, we can still hear frustration, panic, annoyance, calm and more in those miniscule shifts.

This is especially important for where the story takes STEM. Increasingly the plot requires him to develop a personality beyond being a Siri or Alexa style digital helper. Thankfully, Maiden nails that slow evolution.

UPGRADE: The cop
Betty Gabriel cracks a smile, taking a rare break from her intensity in UPGRADE. (Courtesy of Blumhouse Tilt)

Casting the Rest of the UPGRADE Call Sheet

Harrison Gilbertson, as a presumed multi-billionaire living below ground, is exactly what’s needed for the part. With his appearance, his slightly stooped posture, and shuffling stride, he seems both vampiric and child-like. Think a gender-swapped Kirsten Dunst from INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE but rich and in the future. As a result, he has you be both sympathetic towards and unnerved by him.

In contrast, Benedict Hardie is wonderfully hateable. Preaching a gospel of the superiority of man/machine hybrids and “eat the rich” platitudes, he seems like a cult leader on the brink. Hardie wisely undercuts that in his approach, however, revealing just how empty and opportunistic he truly is. And, ultimately, how ill-prepared he is for the bold new world he imagines himself ruling.

Finally, it is great to see GET OUT’s Betty Gabriel getting more work here as the dogged detective. Unfortunately, after a promising first scene, she gets very little to do. She makes the moments count, but sometimes there truly are small parts.

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Filming

UPGRADE is not an expensive film. However, it knows exactly where and how to spend its money. The camera and set design work together to create a low-scale and believable dystopia. The world is a bit more built up than ours. The inner cities have become a bit poorer, a bit more damaged, a bit more ignored. Meanwhile, the rich have gotten richer, further separated, and are catered to by more devices that let them do less.

Whannell’s direction is similarly smart. The movie never goes over the top in terms of style, but clearly establishes itself as being more than a quick, cheap-o sci-fi flick. The best, most eye-catching trick is the way that camera will seemingly affix itself to Marshall-Green’s movements. It tilts, flips, turns 90 degrees, and bounces with each punch and kick, with every sprint. It is the kind of effect you can get practically and with little more than a simple device attached to the camera. Yet, the effect commands attention and fits the needs of the movie just right.

Whannell also does an excellent job with establishing shots, whether it be the Traces’ smart house, Keen’s bizarre underground dwelling, or a tent city. As a result, the film has a great sense of geography. It enhances the above-mentioned camera effect, making it even better.

Additionally, it lets us know the scale of each location. The Traces have done well for themselves but their house is fairly small. Keen is rich as rich can be but his dwelling seems small too. Thus we know the future has become more cramped and space, even more, a premium. All this communicated without a word.

UPGRADE: This is the one!
Harrison Gilbertson and Renah Gallagher get apprehensive in a scene from UPGRADE (Courtesy of Blumhouse Tilt)

The Sound Design/Music

To capture the contemplations on man and machine in UPGRADE, composer Jed Palmer creates a score that alternates between singing strings and fuzzed out technological hums, evoking some predecessors from the genre. For instance, the first time Grey moves his arms after his surgery, a burst of orchestration surges through the electronic static. It is different but feels familiar. A moment later, it clicks. Palmer is homaging the “He’s alive,” music cue of the first FRANKENSTEIN film. It is not a copy but it is close enough that, if you know FRANKENSTEIN, there is no way you will miss it.

Like Marshall-Green’s body language and Whannell’s camera, Palmer’s score mirrors the dynamics between STEM and Grey. The more in control of the action humans are, the more we hear the orchestra. The more technology dominates, the more digital tones command our attention. And, again, interestingly, the score is at its most melodic when STEM and Grey work together in harmony, when seemingly neither dominate.

Also, while I can’t say much about it, the final music cue is perfect. Triumphant and foreboding, it is a final “word” in the storyline we have really been following throughout the film.

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Striking the Set: In Summary

The truly good summer movie seasons boast at least one genuine surprise film. These movies come from a variety of genres and employ known and unknown talents. What unites them all, though, is they are smart—both in terms of story logic and what they present on the screen. They tend to be inexpensive but you can’t tell while you watch them. The movies are well-cast with actors that never feel miscast. And, most importantly, they feel inventive.

UPGRADE has all this. Quick-witted, well-paced, and every dollar spent is on the screen. It is never ponderous, never self-serious but also never takes the easy way out. This is not a SHARKNADO looking to be a bit of disposable kitsch culture. UPGRADE comes to play and makes you love every minute of it.

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