Review – Upgrade

Upgrade is not only the sort of movie that virtually never comes to my town (I was shocked that it did . . . and on opening weekend, to boot!) but it’s also the sort of film that I most love writing about and my audience tends to avoid reading about.  Folks, I, myself, had never heard of this film until last night.  Maybe that’s just me because there was a surprising number of people at my screening, but, regardless, the film is rather low-profile.  But I assume you have clicked (unless this is visible in the preview) and I thank you for that because it either means that either you have also heard something about the film or you haven’t and you’re interested in finding out more about it.  Either way, I’m excited to have you and you have my genuine gratitude for having an interest in a film aside from those that can afford a heavy marketing presence.

Even though the star of Upgrade, Logan Marshall-Green has some notable roles on his résumé (Prometheus, Spider-Man: Homecoming), the involved talent with the most name recognition is writer/director Leigh Whannell, who has not only starred in both the Saw and Insidious series but has also created them both, writing the initial chapters in each, and directing Insidious: Chapter 3.  Here, he once again unites with Blumhouse Productions to bring audiences a new kind of horror, tied to the ever-looming threat of advancing technology.

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For those as unfamiliar with the film as I was, the premise lies in the plight of Marshall-Green’s Grey Trace, who finds himself on the bad end of a horrible tragedy.  In order to repair his damaged body, Grey undergoes an experimental procedure in which a device is implanted in his nervous system which allows communication between his brain and body to recommence.  But Grey soon discovers that there’s more to the device than he was originally led to believe.

There are numerous trace elements of other mainstream pop culture properties to be found in Upgrade, but they’ve never been assembled into a package quite like this one.  The threat of technology is hardly a new theme in cinema; films have been tackling it for decades.  Most famously, The Terminator, The Matrix, and The Avengers have all tried their hands at the subject.  Perhaps most effectively, Charlie Chaplin lamented technology in his classic Modern Times and Alex Garland delivered one of the best science-fiction films in the last several decades with Ex Machina.  So, while the central concept of Upgrade isn’t necessarily totally original, it doesn’t need to be because the execution is unlike anything I can personally recall seeing.

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The film works on several layers, but I have to start with the obvious surface qualities.  Upgrade is quite simply one of the craziest, most energetic, unapologetically entertaining films I’ve seen in quite some time.  My jaw literally, physically dropped no fewer than three times at the events unfolding on the screen.  There’s quite a bit of action thrown into the mix and it’s frenzied, unpredictable, and brutal.  The violence doesn’t revel in its graphic nature by lingering on its viscera but the audience is given just enough of a taste so that it packs a punch and leaves a lasting impression.  The audience who sat with me frequently reacted with a cacophony of groans, exclamations, and ejaculatory curses that were forced from their mouths by the sheer surprises of the film combined with their own personal engagement in the proceedings.  There are stakes for all involved in this story and the impact resonates.

But underneath the superficial thrills resides a narrative that appropriates technology in order to make a statement about humanity.  Anyone can see that there is a battle between man and machine playing out on the screen, but said battle represents something far more relatable and relevant.  Oddly enough, the ultimate message of the film is the same as my favorite 2017 film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (find that review here): we each decide who we are and it’s a constant battle that we wage.  This is a narrative about nature versus nurture and about resisting the temptations we all face on a regular basis.  It’s about standing up to that devilish version of ourselves that sits on our shoulder and rejecting it.  The movie is about claiming and retaining control of one’s own life.

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I have no idea how Upgrade will do at the box office.  I hope people will discover it as I did.  It’s an instant science-fiction classic and the worst-case scenario is that it becomes a cult classic.  This is exactly the kind of film that MoviePass is made for, so use it.  If even a small part of you likes science-fiction and/or originality in filmmaking and can stand some heavy (though quick) violence, rush out and support this movie.  Thirty-six hours ago, I was unaware of Upgrade‘s existence.  Now it’s one of my five favorite films of 2018, so far.  Take the chance and support small, smart cinema.

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