Movie night once again and this week, it’s a little bit of a hidden gem. It’s nothing absolutely 100% spellbinding but it’s a good way to spend an hour and 40 minutes so… I’ve just let my opinion out of the bag, haven’t I? Oh well, press on. There are spoilers ahead.
So, this is a Blumhouse production and as the poster boasts “From Blumhouse, the producer of ‘Get Out’, ‘Happy Death Day’ and ‘The Purge’.” So, why is this poster actively discouraging me from watching this film?
When I say ‘Drama/Action/Sci-Fi’, I usually think of things like ‘The Terminator’ and that sort of thing. And one of the not so great things about this film is that it has one of the most common plots in the ‘action movies that no one has heard of’ genre. Let me know if you’ve heard this plot?
Man’s wife is killed and man is severely injured. Man is helped back on his feet by a friend/an anonymous benefactor/ a stranger who claims to have their best interest in mind so the man can kill the people who killed his wife. The man will find out at the end that the person who was really involved in the death of the man’s wife was any one of the people listed above.
That’s kind of what happens…ish.
So, here’s the actual plot.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is living in an alternate reality where we have made significant technological advancements. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works at a tech company and makes enough money to have a house that talks to her and a self-driving car. One night, Grey and Asha are in the self-driving car but it freaks out and crashes in the ‘poor’ side of town. A gang arrive and drag the pair out of the car where Asha is shot dead and Grey is shot in the neck. Grey survives but his spinal cord was severed and is rendered a quadriplegic. Due to his physical predicament, having to be cared for by his mother (Linda Cropper) and the lack of progress with the investigation, Grey attempts suicide but his household AI gets help. At the hospital, Grey is approached by tech-genius, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) and is offered the opportunity to walk again. All it takes is a little chip attached to the top of his spinal cord and that’s that. Grey is hesitant but accepts. Grey pursues his interests in finding the people who murdered his wife, but he soon finds out that the chip in his spine, STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) can talk to Grey in his mind and can take over his body. All this comes in handy, but things turn shitty when Grey discovers STEM has its own intentions.
The first thing I want to say is that for a film that had a budget of $3 Million, this film looks fucking good. This film knows that when you’re dealing with Sci-fi on a low budget, you’ve got to chose what you’re putting all your money into. The sets look amazing, but they are few in numbers but… they look amazing. I said what I wanted to say and I’m moving on.
The plot is basic but I don’t hold that against filmmakers anymore because we’re at a point now in filmmaking where everything has been done in some form or another so the only thing that we can do as content creators (Yes, me included *check out my book on Amazon*) is take something that’s been done and put a fresh spin on it. What I slap a creator silly for is taking something old and bending it over a spanking saddle, but ‘Upgrade’ took a familiar plot line and really did something good with it in terms of the characters and the setting and the directing. It all pulls together to make a good film.
Since he’s the main character, let’s talk about Grey.
He’s not spectacular as main character’s go, quite generic actually and he’s played by the atypical six-foot, handsome, toned guy and is apparently a mechanic and yet isn’t so thrilled to the pubes when it comes to technology. Asha works for a big tech company and he doesn’t give a shit, neither is he happy about the self-driving car, except when Asha mounts him whilst they’re on their way back from delivering a car to Eron.
What I do like is the way that he moves when STEM takes over.
There’s a section where Grey goes to the house of one of the gang members and he’s faced with the angry homeowner. Grey is getting the shit kicked out of him and smashed through coffee tables and I’m freaking out at this point because this man was a quadriplegic not long ago. STEM asks Grey for his permission to take over and Grey agrees. Instantly, Grey’s movements become very ‘robotic’ like everything is a calculation and he’s performing the simulated moves. Of course, the fight sequence was very carefully choreographed, and it is a bit obvious that was the case but it could also be explained that it’s an AI that it performing these moves. It was also a little bit funny to watch Grey’s face being horrified as his body smashes plates and glasses into this guys face.
Even at the end, when STEM kills the man and Grey is staring down at the body, horrified and sickened, STEM returns control to Grey and there’s a noticeable change in his posture to register that Grey now has control. That was a nice touch.
The film seems to be set in both a utopian and dystopian future and can’t quite decide which they’re going to run with. Grey and Asha’s house is really nice and it’s clear that they’re living in this universe’s version of suburbia. However, when their car crashes, they end up in some kind of tent refuge and no one does a thing to help them from the gang.
There’s also a ‘big brother’ aspect to the city with ‘police drones’ hovering and monitoring the area but they’re not good for much. They can’t intervene in a crime in anyway, all they can do is notify the real police that a crime is taking place and record the events.
Augmentation is another factor. The person who ‘shoots’ Asha does it without a gun. He was able to do this because his whole arm had been implanted with a gun barrel. You know Iron Man? You know how he shoots balls of light out of the palm of his hand? It’s like that. Except, as we see later on, the shells are loaded into a chamber just above the elbow and he does a sort of ‘jerking’ motion to ‘cock’ his ‘weapon’ and I need to stop this sentence because it’s getting too sexy.
One thing that should have made Grey a little bit suspicious is after he’s regained the ability to use his limbs, he’s made to sign a non-disclosure agreement as STEM is an experimental piece of technology and testing the chip on Grey isn’t strictly ‘by the books’. The NDA basically states that no one can know that he has the ability to walk again and so when he’s around other people, he still has to pretend to be a quadriplegic which early on, I thought ‘well, what’s the point?’. If you can’t go about your daily life with full use of your body, only when you’re alone, why bother? The plot does answer that question and we’ll get to that at the end. My original point was, Grey signs this NDA after the chip has been implanted in his body. Now, I totally understand that Grey couldn’t sign anything before hand but he could have given his consent on tape or something. This is the future, isn’t there a better alternative to ‘writing on paper?’.
That whole ‘NDA’ thing goes out the window when Grey’s mother sees him walking and he’s forced to tell her everything and also hot in his tail as the bodies start to mount up is Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) who’s a smart lady on a mission to completely fail to identify the men who killed Grey’s wife but is totally committed to proving that Grey is behind the recent string of murders of criminals.
Because Eron is aware that Grey has been walking around in public, he attempts to shut down STEM so Grey can be retrieved and Eron can regain STEM. STEM however, doesn’t want to be shut down and so orders Grey to a hacker in the poor/dystopian section of the city so they can reboot STEM. This hacker ‘Jamie’ (Kai Bradley) successfully reboots STEM, just in time for STEM to stop the assailants (who also killed his wife) from taking Grey.
However, there’s a snag. Grey wants to make his own choices and is starting to resent the voice in his ear but here’s the snag. When Jamie rebooted STEM with the codes that STEM gave to Grey, that has removed any restrictions placed on STEM by Eron. STEM no longer needs Grey’s permission to take control of his body and uses this advantage to blackmail Grey. STEM knows that the leader of the gang, Fisk (Benedict Hardie) knows about Grey and then try and kill him but STEM can’t have that. So away they go.
All this neatly brings me to final confrontation. Grey gets near the top of the food chain and kills Fisk who was augmented by Asha’s company (along with the rest of his gang) so it was assumed that Asha was the target of the attack but Fish reveals that Grey was the target and Asha was a ‘bonus’. Grey takes Fisk’s phone and learns that Eron was the person who ordered the ambush. Of course, it was. Did you really think that Eron offered Grey the opportunity to walk again because Grey restored a car for him? No, it was an agenda. Duh.
But the movie smarter than you think it is. It knows you’ll have figured all this out ever since the opening credits so in the final scene where Grey confronts Eron who is NOT a fighter and so quickly confesses that STEM was actually behind it all. STEM was created by Eron but grew to be intelligent and independent and targeted Grey as it desperately wanted to be human and so manipulated Eron into setting up this elaborate set of events to cripple Grey and catch him whilst he was weak so he’d agree to have STEM placed in his body.
As Grey desperately fights for control of his body, it’s a futile attempt as STEM goes for full control. As a last ditch effort to stop STEM from killing Detective Cortez, Grey shoots himself in the neck.
The next scene is Grey in the hospital and he’s not paralyzed. Asha then comes in and the audience would be well within their rights to rampage as they assume that this is a ‘and it was all a dream’ ending but again, the film is smarter than you think it is.
Actually, Grey is still in Eron’s house, but Grey isn’t ‘Grey’ anymore. STEM tells Detective Cortez that all it needed was for Grey’s mind to break so it could take control and Grey broke his own mind. Now he’s happy. He’s with his wife inside he’s own mind and it’s less painful than this reality. STEM then kills Detective Cortez and leaves.
All in all, ‘Upgrade’ was a really good movie however, it has gained some criticism for being similar in plot to ‘Venom’ which was released in the same year and I haven’t seem but it’s a Marvel film so I think I hate it. People have pointed out the plot similarities and the fact that Logan Marshall-Green and Tom Hardy are doppelgangers but the writer and director of Upgrade, Leigh Whannell, stated that he was not aware of ‘Venom’ and ‘Upgrade’ was entirely of his own creation.
Hang on… Leigh Whannell? THE Leigh Whannell? The guy who co-wrote ‘Saw’ with James Wan? That explains why one of the production companies was Blumhouse, because he and James Wan also did ‘Insidious’ which was praised way more than it deserved. I know what you’re thinking, ‘something good came out of Blumhouse?’ Yeah, but there are about four other production companies in there also.
So, this film was released in theatres and of it’s $3 Million budget, ‘Upgrade’ made $16.1 Million which is really good considering the budget. The reception has also been fairly positive with critics and the audience enjoying it and it’s also been nominated for a couple of awards and even won the ‘SXSW Audience Award’ in September of this year.
There is also the possibility of a sequel which is very ‘Blumhouse’. I’m skeptical of the prospect of a sequel since the ending didn’t really hint at a sequel so I don’t think it will centre around Grey because his story is done. That means it’s going to be a ‘same story, different cast’ kind of sequel which is also very ‘Blumhouse’. After reviewing the ‘Final Destination’ films, I don’t want to see anymore of that.
I think ‘Upgrade’ deserved more recognition. Like I said above, this film isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire but it’s definitely better than most of the shit out there and hardly anyone knows about it. That’s a shame.
Just one question lingers. Why is this film dubbed as body horror? I’ve seen body horror films, and this isn’t that. How do I know? Because I could eat a pizza whilst watching it.