Skip to main content

STEM, you can take over.

Upgrade
(2018)

(SPOILERS) There’s a host of readily identifiable, familiar elements from genre fare in Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi B-movie, taking in such disparate flicks as Death Wish, Robocop, Knight Rider and Monkey Shines – and Venom, despite coming out of the gate a month earlier than the Tom Hardy starrer – and its premise, of an unstoppable, inventive AI that can see far beyond the humans who spawned it, couldn’t be called especially novel, but Upgrade comes with enough personality to be its own thing.


Whannell, long-time producing partner with James Wan turned director on Insidious: Chapter Three, may not have quite the same versatility behind the camera as his long-time collaborator, but he’s certainly competent, and as a writer he’s blessed with an innate understanding of how to bring genre staples to life, clichés and all. This being low-budget (Blumhouse) fare, the futuristic trappings, which mostly singularly amount to an autocar, are a bit rough around the edges, but in the kind of likeably cheesy manner that brings to mind such straight-to-video ‘80s fare as Trancers, rather than eliciting groans at the lack of resources. As is often the case with this kind of material, one could readily imagine a big budget version with a major star, duly expanded and given the works, but it probably would have lost a lot of its personality en route.


Grey: STEM, he’s got a knife.
STEM: I can see that. We have a knife too.

Anyway, the picture’s greatest special effect isn’t visual but aural; STEM, the AI chip inserted in the spine of quadriplegic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green, doomed to a career of looking a bit like Tom Hardy, but a genuinely good actor), and granting him the ability to walk again, and then some. Simon Maiden lends a soothing, unflappable, HAL-esque tone to STEM (Grey can hear him in his head), so making the destruction derby our protagonist embarks upon – seeking revenge for the death of wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) – that much more palatable, even when he’s slashing an interrogation subject’s face up. And STEM’s not just great at fisticuffs; he’s a treasure at a crime scene (“I have a record of every single thing you touched”). 


Fisk: I didn’t ruin your life. I inducted you into my race. The Upgraded. Now you’re better than everyone else.

The tension between Grey’s horror at what he’s now capable of and the release that comes with letting the AI do its thing is expertly sustained, and Whannell builds in sufficient really bad guys, particularly Benedict Hardie’s Fisk (exulting in his belief that he is part of a new and better breed, beyond humanity), that we have few immediate qualms about the course he follows. There’s also the dramatic tension of STEM being switched off and leaving Grey entirely vulnerable; as a plot motor, it’s perfect, as we’d much rather this dangerous AI was able to support him than the alternative. 


Less successful is the obligatory cop investigating the case (Betty Gabriel); Whannell’s unable to find a way to make her seem essential to the proceedings, so she’s reduced to a rather stale voice of conscience – a role also performed by Linda Cropper as Grey’s mum – required to pop up every so often and then be side-tracked. Although, her fate, and that of Grey, is appropriately downbeat. 


STEM: The fake world is a lot less painful than the real one.

The potential threat of AI unleashed has never been more pertinent; what once seemed a far-off notion (The Terminator) is now an immediate concern. In his own rather glib way, Whannell posits his version of The Matrix here; all it takes is a STEM implant for every citizen, and you have everyone living in a virtual world while its hosts control the external. Doubtless, if Upgrade had been more successful (not that it could be deemed a failure on its budget) an Upgrade 2, in which Grey fights back, would be guaranteed; it may yet happen, ancillaries allowing, as Jason Blum has intimated plans are in the works. As it is, Whannell can be suitably proud of a funny, fast-paced, no-nonsense little genre pic. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.