Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival. Upgrade will be released theatrically on June 1st.
Leigh Whannell’s Blumhouse collaboration Upgrade premiered at SXSW in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Whannell is the Australian director best known for writing the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all four Insidious movies, so his expertise has long been megaplex horror and critical disdain. This movie — smaller and financed by the most acclaimed horror producer of the last decade — is something new for him.
Upgrade was introduced by Blumhouse boss Jason Blum, who used his time onstage to inject a SXSW volunteer with some kind of neural implant (it was a long, confusing bit, and there was blood) and to announce, to a standing ovation, that Get Out’s Betty Gabriel was robbed at the Academy Awards. It was 1AM; she stood up and twirled. It was a bright spot before a long march into the gloom, but I suppose that’s what you hope for at a horror screening in the middle of the night.
What’s the genre?
Upgrade starts out as your basic near-future cyborg thriller, but there’s a reason it was screening at midnight at SXSW: the filmmakers are totally delighted by graphic violence, and they repeatedly indulge in full-on body horror. No spoilers, but there are four exclamation points after the line in my notebook that says “I’ve never seen a jaw do that before.”
What’s it about?
Upgrade follows your standard avenge-the-murder-of-my-kind-wife plot. It stars Logan Marshall-Green — the brooding, put-upon protagonist from Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation — as Grey Trace, a mechanic who’s extremely skeptical of the career his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) has chosen as a high-powered… something at a prominent AI firm. One night, after the couple visits the enigmatic wunderkind CEO (high-necked white jacket, general Bieber aesthetic) of her firm’s top competitor, her self-driving car is hacked, and the two of them fly off the side of the highway. A man with a gun for a hand kills her, and Grey wakes up in the hospital as a quadriplegic. Oddly, the Bieberish tech-boy he met once for five minutes wants to offer him an opportunity: become the first human test subject for a new AI called Stem (yup, “STEM”) and let the computer control his body and help him walk again. His thoughts will still be his own, our guy swears up and down. Anyway, it’s not really a choice: how will Grey avenge his wife if he can’t run around and punch people?
Cool. Gabriel plays the lead detective on Asha’s case, her second role in a Blumhouse premiere at SXSW this year. She’s a little suspicious of Grey’s tendency to show up on security cameras in and around the locations where the murder suspects keep turning up dead! She wears a great motorcycle jacket.
What’s it really about?
This is not a meaningful question. Upgrade has cookie-cutter characters and a plot twist you can spot from miles away. The technophobe is the hero, and so, of course, the technophobe ends up being right.
Upgrade briefly dives into the question of whether it’s worth it to have a functioning body and mind if you’re using them exclusively as a means to an end. But the writing around it is so doofy — resisting the implant at first, Grey remarks, “I’m not looking to restart my life; I’m looking to find the off-switch” — it feels like an afterthought. The action sequences are electric; they’re grimy, choppy, and strange. But when the characters talk, the film stretches and slows to a banal cautionary tale, almost as if Whannell was making the movie as a homework assignment, having a ton of fun with the aesthetics and the fight scenes, then suddenly remembering he was supposed to incorporate some “themes.” The theme is, I suppose, “don’t trust artificial intelligence.” Um, whatever! You can still enjoy it if all you want is a good, wild time with cyborgs and car chases.
Is it good?
It’s remarkable what Whannell pulled off with what he claims was the standard Blumhouse budget. (They rarely make movies that cost more than $5 million.) His vision of the near-future isn’t so innovative — I’m not sure why the dive bars of 2040 would have such an old-timey pirate aesthetic, and I’ve seen more thorough consideration of smart homes on the Disney Channel — but he put a lot of care into choreographing Grey’s reaction to his obsequious-sinister brain implant. Whannell says he was inspired by The Terminator, and the influence is clear when Grey moves. His body language is sharp, pulling off elaborate and creative acts of violence with machine-like precision. All the while, his face is doing emotional gymnastics, sometimes thrilled by the revenge he’s enacting, sometimes horrified by the brutality of what his limbs are doing. He cries, pleads, barfs, says “thank you.” He can’t make up his mind, but it doesn’t matter — events proceed without him.
Marshall-Green really is phenomenal, so it’s unfortunate that the script gives him next to nothing to work with. During the film’s clunky exposition, he looks at a tiny robot and remarks, “Can it make babies and play football?” Later, he watches some people playing with VR headsets. “How long do they VR for?” It’s all a little cloying. The chip in his brain watches him drink a glass of whiskey and remark, “It does not make sense that humans deliberately impair their function.” The audience I was with chuckled charitably, but these are notes we’ve seen hit many times before.
What should it be rated?
R. Upgrade is essentially an extended Black Mirror episode — mostly shock, not a ton of substance, a cautionary tale that isn’t as imaginative as it thinks it is. But there is a lot of gore, and our hero calls someone “cock-snot” at one point.
How can I actually watch it?
Upgrade will be released through Blumhouse’s “multi-platform” distribution arm Blumhouse Tilt on June 1st. This likely means a short, limited theatrical window before the film is also available to stream.