Thursday, July 12, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Upgrade

Upgrade was written and directed by Leigh Whannell.

Whannell is an Australian writer and director, as well as an actor and producer. He previously wrote Saw (both the original short film and the full-length feature), Saw II, Saw III, Dead Silence, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, Cooties (which I liked quite a bit) and The Mule (Which is about a man transporting drugs in his rectum, who has to keep from pooping them out for four day or else be arrested. No, really) and Insidious: Chapter 3.

He also played the character of Specs in Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2Insidious: Chapter and Insidious: The Last KeyAnd he had a small part in The Bye Bye Man, which I'm sure he considers his proudest achievement.

Whannell made his directorial debut with Insidious: The Last Key.

Upgrade is a decent little concoction that's a combination of thoughtful science fiction, superhero origin story, revenge movie and body horror. It feels like a throwback to the kind of film Arnold Schwarzenegger regularly made in the 1980s and 1990s. That's a good thing, by the way!

It's also a lean, tightly constructed movie that's fast paced and gets right down to business. Every scene is there for a reason and leads directly into the next, with absolutely no fat or superfluous dialogue or side quests. That's a rarity in these days of bloated, big budget effects movies.

It's a smartly written and thought provoking film, right up until the end. Unfortunately there's a massive plot hole in the final minutes that pretty much torpedoes the entire film. If you can manage to overlook that, then you'll likely have a good time.

The acting's all over the place, ranging from surprisingly good to shocking bad. Star Logan Marshall-Green is the MVP, playing a man slowly being taken over by a cybernetic intelligence, and becoming a passenger in his own body.

Upgrade's also a dark and nasty little film, featuring a surprising amount of gore. I guess that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, seeing it was written and directed by the creator of the Saw franchise.

So far the movie's grossed a little under $12 million against its "$3 to $5 million" budget (I couldn't find an exact figure). That makes it a very mild success.


The Plot:
Sometime in the near future, humanity has begun augmenting itself with cybernetic parts. Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green), is a traditional, hands-on kind of guy who shuns technology, and loves to restore old muscle cars. His wife Asha is just the opposite— she works for a high-tech company called Cobalt, and depends on the couples' smart home for everything.

Grey finishes working on a car for a client, and asks Asha to help him deliver it. They drive it to the advanced underground home of Eron Keen, a young, reclusive billionaire genius. While there, the social awkward Eron shows them his next innovation— an advanced computer chip called "STEM," which he claims will revolutionize the medical field. He tells them STEM could be used to restore mobility to paralyzed patients (FORESHADOWING ALERT!).

As they return home, Grey and Asha engage in witty romantic banter. Suddenly their self-driving car is hacked by someone. It speeds through the streets and flips over several times in a junkyard. As they come to, they're dragged from the wrecked car by several goons.

The leader of these thugs shoots Asha in the gut, as a horrified Grey looks on. When he tries to fight back, one of the goons shoots Grey in the spine, instantly paralyzing him from the neck down. They leave him for dead and scatter. Unable to move, Grey helplessly watches as Asha dies a few feet away from him. Well that all got dark quickly!

Cut to Grey recovering in the hospital, as he stares despondently out the window. Eventually he's sent home, where he's given a high-tech wheelchair that does virtually everything for him. 
His mother Pam moves in to help him adjust, as Grey falls into a deep depression.

Grey's visited by Detective Cortez, who's working on Asha's murder case. Unfortunately she has no leads and says she may never find out who's responsible.

Despondent, Grey tries to commit suicide by ordering his automated chair to give him an overdose of pain meds. The chair feeds him pill after pill, but stops when it reaches the maximum daily dose. He becomes even more depressed when he realizes he can't even kill himself.

A few days later Grey's visited by Eron, who has a proposition for him. He offers to implant STEM into Grey's spinal cord, which will bypass his injury and allow him to walk again. Grey, who's not a fan of technology, tells him to get lost. Eron, who we've seen has no idea how to act around people, suddenly becomes an expert in psychology, and tells Grey that Asha would want him to walk again. Grey finally agrees.

But Eron's offer comes with a catch
 the STEM chip hasn't been approved by the medical community, so he tells Grey he has to keep the operation a secret. Grey agrees, even signing (how?) a non-disclosure agreement. 

Eron implants the STEM chip into Grey's neck. He wakes up sometime later, and within minutes he's up and moving around, without needing to relearn how to walk. That STEM must be one hell of a microchip!

Grey, who now has a reason to live again, returns home. Some time later he's shocked when he hears a voice in his head. It turns out it's STEM, which, in addition to being able to restore Grey's mobility, apparently also contains a sophisticated artificial intelligence. I guess Eron forgot to mention that.

After chatting a while, STEM casually mentions he's been studying drone footage of Asha's murder. He plays the recording, which shows one of the men shooting Asha with a gun implanted in his hand. STEM analyzes the man's face, and says his name is Fisk.

Grey starts to call Cortez, but STEM warns that she'll want to know where he got his info. STEM discovers the identity of another of the goons, whose name is Serk. He then suggests Grey pay him a visit.

Grey sneaks out and goes to Serk's address. He waits for him to leave, then breaks into his house. He checks his emails and finds several from the Old Dog bar. Just then Serk returns, sees Grey and attacks. Grey's no match for the thug, and gets his ass handed to him. STEM asks Grey for permission to temporarily take over his body, and he quickly agrees.

Under STEM's control, Grey expertly dodges Serk's attacks and strikes back with brutal and precise punches. Serk tries to stab Grey, but STEM grabs the knife from him and practically slices off the top of his head, killing him. STEM returns control to Grey, who vomits at what "he" just did. STEM tells Grey he'll need to remove all traces of his presence from the apartment.

Later Eron visits Grey again. He says he's been monitoring his whereabouts, and knows he went to Serk's house and killed him. He reminds Grey of his nondisclosure agreement, and orders him to knock off his little investigation.

Cortez, who's apparently the only cop in the city, sees Serk's body in the morgue. She reviews some more convenient drone footage of his house, and sees Grey zoom by in his motorized wheelchair. Intrigued, she pays Grey a visit and questions why he was near Serk's home at the time of his death. Grey asks if she's seriously considering a quadriplegic as a suspect.

After Cortez leaves, Grey drives his wheelchair to the Old Dog, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. He awkwardly asks anyone who had anything to do with Asha's murder to step forward. A man named Tolan says he was there, grabs Grey's wheelchair and pushes him into the bathroom. Two other thugs follow, and Tolan tells Grey that cripple or not, he's gonna mess him up.

Of course Grey tells STEM to take over, and he easily beats the thugs senseless. STEM then starts torturing Tolan with a knife, until he finally blurts out that the man who killed Asha was named Fisk. STEM then kills Tolan for his trouble.

Suddenly STEM says he detects Eron trying to shut him down. He says if that happens, Grey will be helpless once again. He gives Grey the address of a hacker named Jamie, who can protect him from Aaron. Grey runs out of the bar, leaving his wheelchair behind.

A little later Fisk shows up at the Old Dog, where he finds his pal Tolan's body. As a cyborg, Tolan had a bionic eye, which Fisk uses to see "Grey" torturing and killing him. He turns his attention to the bartender, furious with him for doing nothing as Tolan was murdered. Fisk, who also has cybernetic enhancements, sneezes out a cloud of nanites. They float over to the bartender and infiltrate his body, liquefying him from the inside out.

Grey arrives at Jamie's apartment, just as Eron starts shutting down STEM. He loses control of his legs, and begins crawling up the stairs. STEM gives Grey a reboot code, and tells him to write it on his arm. Grey manages to make it to Jamie's apartment, and gives her a wad of cash. She drags him inside.

Jamie uses the reboot code to restore STEM and protect him from further meddling. Unfortunately it'll take several minutes for him to reboot, leaving Grey helpless. Just then Jamie glances at a security camera, where she sees Fisk and his cyborg henchman Jeffries enter the building. She and her hacker pals vamoose, leaving Grey behind.

Fisk enters Jamie's apartment, where he finds the helpless Grey. Just as they're about to kill him, STEM comes back online. He takes over Grey's body, and there's a big setpiece battle between the three cyborgs. Jeffries corners Grey and tries to shoot him with his literal hand gun. STEM grabs Jeffries' gun arm and causes him to shoot himself in the head. STEM/Grey then escapes.

Grey returns home, where an astonished Pam sees him walking. He tells her about STEM, but swears her to secrecy. Cortez shows up again, wondering why Grey's wheelchair was found at the scene of another murder. He makes up a story about being attacked by muggers, and a dubious Cortez pretends to buy it and leaves.

Grey then roars off in his car, intending to find and kill Fisk once and for all. Unknown to him, Cortez follows him in her own car. STEM notes that Cortez placed a bug in Grey's jacket. He finds it and destroys it. There's another big action setpiece in which Cortez chases after Grey on a crowded highway. Finally STEM takes control of a self-driving car and slams it into Cortez's manually-driven auto, allowing Grey to get away.

STEM tracks Fisk to his home, and Grey confronts him there. They have another big cyborg battle, but it goes badly for Grey, as Fisk can anticipate his every move. Eventually STEM manages to get the upper hand. Fisk admits he and his cyborg ex-mercenary pals were hired to attack Grey, and Asha getting in the way was just a bonus. Enraged, Grey shoves Fisk backward, impaling him on a piece of glass that runs through his head.

Grey checks Fisk's phone and hears a message from Eron, ordering him to go after Grey.

Grey returns to Eron's lab, intending to kill him. He accuses Eron of having him crippled, just so he'd have a test subject for his STEM project. He pulls a gun on Eron, but just then Cortez somehow appears and orders him to stand down.

Eron confesses the plan wasn't his idea, but STEM's. As STEM grew more and more intelligent, it decided it wanted a human body. Somehow STEM blackmailed Eron into hiring Fisk and crew to cripple Grey. Just how a microchip can blackmail a person is left to our imaginations.

Horrified, Grey stabs himself in the hand to prevent him from killing anyone. STEM then takes control of his body without permission. He stabs Eron in the head and incapacitates Cortez. Grey struggles mightily to regain control over his own body. He manages to raise his gun and shoot himself in the neck, destroying STEM.

Grey wakes up in the hospital again. He's shocked when he sees Asha sitting at his bedside. When he asks what's going on, she tells him he's been in a coma since the accident. Grey and Asha embrace, as they have their lives back. Jesus Christ! Not the old "It Was All A Dream" ending!

Smash cut back to Fisk's house, where STEM is now completely in control of Grey's body. He monologues to Cortez that he placed Grey's consciousness in a fantasy world inside his head, where he'll live out his life with Asha and never bother him again. He gloats that he finally has a body of his own, and reveals he has big plans for the world. He kills Cortez and leaves.


For some reason, instead of using traditional onscreen text, the opening credits are spoken by a female voiceover, accompanied by a visual soundwave.

• The film was originally titled STEM, which makes some amount of sense. "Upgrade" is catchier and more descriptive though, so I can see why they changed it.

Upgrade was filmed in and around Melbourne, which just happens to be the hometown of writer/director Leigh Whannell.

• There aren't a lot of flashy special effects in the film, but what's there is very well done and totally believable. The production design was pretty good as well, especially Asha's futuristic self-driving car and Eron's high-tech medical lab.

• Long-time readers of my reviews know I hate it when a sci-fi movie features amazingly advanced technology, but is set in the far off future of ten years from now. Happily, Upgrade doesn't fall into that trap. Like Robocop, it never specifies just when it's happening. All we need to know is it takes place at some point in the nebulous future.

• Speaking of Robocop... 
You'd have to be blind not to realize that Upgrade features pretty much the exact same plot. Hero has a happy family life, he's brutally attacked by thugs and left for dead, he's given a second chance at life through the miracle of technology and gets sweet revenge on those who wronged him.

In fact the scene in which Grey's attacked and paralyzed by a group of cybernetic thugs is practically a shot-for-shot duplication of Murphy's death in Robocop (the original, not the remake).

Eh, I'm fine with that. At this point it's virtually impossible to come up with a completely original idea. Upgrade puts just enough of a spin on the tale to sufficiently differentiate itself from the source material.

• While we're on the subject of originality, let's talk movie trailers, shall we? The Upgrade trailer was released the first week of April, 2018.

In it, Grey Trace is a mechanic who's been brutally attacked and paralyzed. He's then implanted with an advanced microchip called STEM, which restores his mobility and gives him superhuman powers.

Grey sneaks into Serk's apartment looking for evidence. Serk returns and begins beating Grey senseless. STEM's voice asks for permission to take control of Grey's body. He manages to croak out a "yes" as Serk strangles him. 

Suddenly Grey's body, now under Serk's control, springs upright off the floor.

STEM expertly blocks each of Serk's punches with machine-like precision.

The fight moves into the kitchen, where STEM starts busting dishes over Serk's head, as a helpless Grey looks on.

Serk pulls a knife on Grey, but STEM grabs it from him and stabs him several times before killing him. STEM returns control to Grey, who's shaken and horrified by what "he's" just done.

All in all an intense scene from a pretty cool trailer.

Apparently Sony Pictures were impressed by the Upgrade trailer as well. Just two weeks after it was released, Sony debuted the trailer for their upcoming Venom movie, starring Tom Hardy.

In the film, journalist Eddie Brock's been infected by an alien symbiote, which gives him superhuman powers. His apartment is invaded by two thugs, with the intent to kill him. 

Suddenly the Venom symbiote takes control of Eddie's body and springs into action.

Venom expertly blocks each of thugs' punches with inhuman precision. It also forms gooey extensions from Eddie's limbs, and uses them to choke and thrash the thugs.

The fight moves to another area of the apartment, where Venom starts punching a thug's head, as a helpless Eddie looks on.

After killing the thugs, Venom returns control to Eddie, who's shaken and horrified by what "he's" just done.

Jesus Christ! It's the same goddamned trailer, featuring the same goddamned scene from a movie with the same goddamned premise! It's so blatant it's shocking!

Hell, Venom's Tom Hardy even bears a passing resemblance to Upgrade's Logan Marshall-Green!

So what the heck's going on? Did Sony blatantly copy Upgrade, or is it all just a whopper of an unlikely coincidence? It's hard to say. 

Upgrade began filming in March of 2017, while Venom started shooting in October of the same year. So there was definitely time for Sony to see what Blumhouse Productions was up to and "draw inspiration" from them. I don't have any evidence either way (except for the trailer), so I'll have to reluctantly give Sony the benefit of the doubt. It's still pretty amazing though.

• Logan Marshall-Green turns in a top notch performance as main character Grey Trace. He's particularly amazing in the above mentioned scene in which STEM takes over his body and begins beating Serk senseless. 

Somehow Marshall-Green makes it look like his body's acting of its own accord, while he looks on in shock at what it's doing. It's very impressive, and quite convincing! I'm betting he had to practice the scene quite a bit.

• Harrison Gilbertson, who plays billionaire tech genius Eron, turns in one of the worst acting performances I've seen outside an Ed Wood movie. Apparently when the director told him to play Eron as a socially awkward outsider, Gilbertson heard "wooden, emotionless cipher" and acted the role accordingly. Seriously, he's bad.

• I'm sure it's purely a coincidence that STEM speaks in a soft, melodious and emotionless voice that sounds nearly identical to HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yep, totally unintentional!

• So Eron invents the STEM chip, but can't test it on a human subject due to the medical community's pesky laws and regulations. He decides to implant the chip into Grey anyway, swearing him to absolute secrecy and making him sign a non-disclosure contract. The operation's a success, and Eron can miraculously walk again.

Did Eron ever stop for a minute to think about any of this? Does he really expect Grey to pretend to be paralyzed every time he goes outside from now on? Did Grey realize he'd only be able to walk inside his home, lest people discover his secret?

It's inevitable that eventually someone would mess up at some point, and the secret would be out.

On the other hand, I guess Eron wasn't really acting of his own accord, and was forced into all this by STEM. I guess STEM didn't think very far ahead either then!

• All movies contain plot holes it's just an inescapable fact of life. Some of them are minor and can be easily hand-waved away, while others are so big you could drive a tank through them.

Upgrade contains what may be the granddaddy of all plot holes one so big it pretty torpedoes the entire movie.

See, in the final minutes of the film, it's revealed that everything that happened up to that point was orchestrated by get ready for it STEM itself! 

Yep, that's right! Somehow a goddamned microchip arranged for Grey and Eron to become acquainted. It then caused Grey's car wreck, and secretly hired a team of mercs to brutally paralyze him. STEM then somehow blackmailed Eron into implanting it in Grey's neck, restoring his mobility. 

It then revealed itself to Grey, and manipulated him into giving it control of his body. STEM then killed everyone who knew about his plan, tucked Grey's mind away in a fantasy world, and walked away as the sole proprietor of his very own human body.

That's pretty impressive for something the size of a dime!

So here's the plot hole how did STEM manage to orchestrate any aspect of this intricate plan? Sure, it's an advanced A.I., but it's housed inside an immobile microchip, for frak's sake! It can't move or affect its surroundings in any way. Heck, STEM can't even talk until it's implanted into Grey's neck! How does an inanimate object blackmail a person? It'd be like your lamp suddenly threatening you!

Even if STEM could connect to the internet through wi-fi, I still don't see how it could force anyone to do anything against their will. As soon as it started making noises about blackmail, all Eron had to do was drop STEM on the floor and step on it.

Writer/director Leigh Whannell was smart enough to reveal this plot twist in literally the final seconds of the film, so the audience doesn't have enough time to stop and think about how monumentally silly it is.

• The concept of Jeffries having a shotgun literally built into his arm was pretty darned cool.

It was also done before sort of. Back in the 1990s, X-Men comics featured a character named Random, whose arm could transform into an organic shotgun. Oh well. It was nice to finally see the idea realized in live action, I guess.

• As a cyborg, Fisk has the ability to sneeze out a cloud of nanites, which can dismantle an enemy from the inside. A couple things here. Hopefully Fisk is immune to these nanites, or they're programmed not to bother him, lest he be killed by his own weapon. Secondly, let's hope he can control when he releases the nanites. Otherwise, he's gonna kill hundreds of people every time he gets the sniffles.

• At the end of the movie, Grey goes back to Eron's house to kill him. Before he can pull the trigger, Cortez appears and stops him. Did I miss a line of dialogue or something? How the holy hell did she not only get to Eron's house right behind Grey, but know that's where he was headed? 

Yes, Cortez placed a tracker in Eron's jacket, but he tossed it out the window before he caused her to crash. I don't see any way in hell she could possibly have known he was heading for Eron's.

Upgrade is a dark and gritty throwback to 1980s sci-fi action movies, that's also smartly written and thought provoking. It also a combination of several completely different genres, that still somehow manages to work. There's a massive plothole in the final minutes of the film, but other than that it's a decent little film. I give it a good solid B.

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