Thursday, June 7, 2018

Upgrade (2018) Review


For better and for worse, my personal taste in movies can be perfectly encapsulated in the following statement: My favorite movie of 2015 was Hardcore Henry. Chances are you’ve probably not seen Hardcore Henry, because it had a very limited theatrical run, and the word of mouth from most of the few people who managed to catch it in theaters likely contained some variant on the terms “mind-numbing” and or “nausea-inducing.” Its a movie about a cyborg on a one man mission to save his girlfriend from a telekinetic supervillian, brutally killing hundreds of bad guys along the way, and retroactively causing my thirteen year old self’s head to explode. More notably, the entire movie is shot in first person, like a Doom-style FPS run and gun videogame, hence the nausea. Upgrade, the new sci-fi action film from Blumhouse’s Tilt imprint feels like Hardcore Henry’s third person DLC patch, if it was written by Shane Black and directed by Paul Verhoven in his Total Recall era heyday. And its exactly as awesome as that sounds.

Upgrade follows the absurdly named Grey Trace, an old fashioned mechanic trapped in a vaguely dystopian near future world of self-driving cars, robot armed smart houses, and omnipresent drone surveillance. Following an attack by a mysterious gang of thugs that leaves him a widow in a wheelchair, he’s offered a second lease on life via an experimental microchip called STEM that gives him back the use of his body, along with a helpful A.I. voice in his head that teaches him kung fu and propels him into a quest for revenge. If I need to tell you anything else about the plot of this movie to get you excited enough to see it, it probably isn’t for you. This is the kind of pulpy high concept premise designed to appeal to guys like me who grew up with 80’s sci-fi action schlock, and it will likely alienate a lot of people who aren’t working from that baseline just for how unapologetic it is about paying tribute to its inspirations. But then again, that second group of people are losers so who cares what they think?

I’m sorry, I know that sounds a bit arch, but the more I see movies like Upgrade get buried and ignored with impossibly tiny releases while the equivalent of twice its budget is wasted erasing Superman’s mustache, the more cynical I’ve become about the market studios are looking at to determine which movies should get an actual release or not. To be fair, Blumhouse is no Warner Bros, and given their track record of almost never losing money on a movie, I would trust their judgement when they determine something like Truth Or Dare would have wider appeal than something like Upgrade, so I have to resist my usual impulse to blame the studio, and simply accept that producing quality genre fair like this, or like the aforementioned Hardcore Henry or Snowpiercer before it, to the same unwashed masses who eat up every new Minions movie might just be a pearls before swine situation.


Okay, diatribe over, back to the movie. The great thing about Upgrade is that it doesn’t just settle for indulging in the tropes of its genre, but also doesn’t think that elevating from that point means constantly subverting those tropes, or constantly going over the top and winking at the camera to let the audience know it knows what its doing. It starts with the tropes and explores the consequences of them in an organic and satisfying way that honors fans of this kind of movie while still challenging them, without ever patronizing them or spoon-feeding them the things they like. Which is to say, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll get all the things you like about it, but not in a way that feels obvious or gratuitous, and you’ll get a great story with great characters that exists independent of all the genre trappings.

It’s so refreshing to see a movie tackle a theme head on and explore it in every facet of its execution. In Upgrade’s case, that theme is the loss of control, and you see it pop up and interweave through every story point and character arc in different ways to where it never feels like the film is beating you over the head with any sort of message, but rather just posing interesting questions to add substance to what would have been a solid action thriller even without them. Grey is old school and resents riding in his wife’s car that won’t let him touch the steering wheel, and then its hacked and he’s forced to lie on the ground helpless as his wife is murdered in front of him. Then he’s in a wheelchair and tries to use the very A.I assisted technology he resents to get his smart house to help him commit suicide. Then when he seemingly regains control of his body thanks to STEM, he finds that to progress in his mission he has to consent to the computer taking over his body, and the more he gives that consent, the more he has to question what he is becoming as the actions of the machine moving his limbs are lethally violent, but also the only efficient means he has of attaining justice. All of this comes to a head in a climax that I won’t spoil, except to say that it might be somewhat predictable in the broad strokes, but perfectly executed in the finer details.

The details are what separate a movie like Upgrade from the hundreds of other similar seeming straight to VOD movies you might come across and likely ignore this year. Just the way that every phase of Grey’s journey is filmed slightly differently, starting out fairly traditional, than slowing down when he’s wheelchair bound, and then switching to this stiffer on rail robotic camera work whenever STEM takes control of him. These sequences are the highlight of the film from a pure action standpoint, allowing for a range of different scenarios from bad-ass wish fulfillment beat downs to Three Stooges style slapstick reminiscent of classic Sam Raimi. Every time Grey goes into cyborg mode is different, and most surprisingly, the film is able to circumvent what I anticipated would be a major problem with the narrative, that just based on the premise, the protagonist loses all agency whenever his body is no longer his own. Fortunately the story finds several opportunities to show Grey needing to take back control, running into situations where the computer advantage is removed or canceled out or his human ingenuity is required to overcome an obstacle, and by the end, the division between man and machine becomes the central issue at play in a way that ties all the previous instances together better than I could have hoped for.


It sounds like I’m gushing at this point, but there’s just so much to like about this movie. Every role is played by a relative unknown and they all hit it out of the park, with Grey’s actor Logan Marshall-Green being the most well known only by virtue of his previous work as one of the incompetent astronauts from Prometheus and that guy you forgot was in Spiderman: Homecoming. Just his facial expressions when he’s forced to watch as STEM uses him to do something horribly violent, and his slow progression from being horrified by this, to being amused, and then being horrified by his own amusement. Everyone else basically falls into a stock character that you would need for this kind of movie but they all acquit themselves well where they’re needed, from the impossibly sweet and therefore inevitably doomed wife (a former Power Ranger, which only I care about), to the creepy introverted scientist who I could have sworn was Dane DeHaan before I realized he was actually employing some measure of subtlety, to the intrepid cop on his tail who I could have sworn was Sonequa Martin-Green from Star Trek Discovery before I realized she was emoting. Special recognition should go to Benedict Hardie who plays the film’s primary villain, a rival cyborg with a superiority complex and the condescending demeanor of an even more punch-able version of Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer.

At this point, just the fact that it had an ending that worked is a marked improvement on a trend that seems to be gradually coalescing into the Year of Disappointing Conclusions. Between Avengers: Infinity War’s ending begging to be reversed by the next movie and Deadpool 2 descending into fan service farce completely invalidating itself, to the terrible creepy kid from A Wrinkle In Time and whatever the hell Annihilation and Hereditary were doing, I didn’t think it was possible anymore to end a movie by actually wrapping up all the threads it started with and leaving no expectations of franchise building or lazy, faux ponderous ambiguity only designed to compel the audience to fill in the gaps where the story couldn’t. Upgrade feels like a feature length version of what everyone keeps insisting to me that Black Mirror is supposed to be: a creepy, quasi-techno-phobic morality tale. Except unlike almost every Black Mirror episode that doesn’t involve Star Trek pastiche or sex with a pig, it actually pays off on the interesting premise it sets up. Who would have thought that was even a thing anymore? Certainly I didn’t, and I was pleasantly surprised. Hopefully you will be too. 
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