I always find it fascinating when horror artists tackle other genres. From John Carpenter adding demonic monsters to his kung-fu comedy to Sam Raimi inserting jump-scares in super-hero flicks, you can almost always find a hint of the filmmakers’ previous work even in these non-scary projects. 2018’s sci-fi/action flick Upgrade is no exception, offering up quite a bit of horrific undertones alongside its futuristic action.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (the co-creator of Saw), Upgrade is meant to be a no-holds-barred throwback to the schlocky sci-fi offerings of the 70s and 80s, stumbling onto some serious issues along the way. Originally titled STEM, Whannell had completed the first version of the script back in 2012, but the project only really took off once Blumhouse got involved after being convinced that the story didn’t require a blockbuster budget to be produced.
Shot in Whannell’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia for a measly $3 million, the film takes place in a grounded vision of the near future where self-driving cars and advanced artificial intelligence can’t quite make up for economic disparity and urban decay. It’s here that we meet Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic who’s left quadriplegic after an encounter with ruthless criminals. Losing both his wife and his freedom, Grey readily accepts the offer to be implanted with a cutting-edge artificial intelligence that will help him regain control of his body as a cybernetically enhanced super-human. This leads to a unique revenge thriller that touches on the dangers of short-sighted scientific advancement and elements of body horror.
While the film didn’t benefit from a wide international release, it was still moderately successful at the box office, raking in over five times its modest budget and impressing most critical outlets. Many filmgoers went so far as to compare the flick favorably to Sony’s Venom (another sci-fi action flick about a man sharing his body with an inhuman intelligence), and Upgrade ultimately became something of a cult hit among fans of low-budget sci-fi.
Not bad for Whannell’s second feature-length directing gig.
SO WHY IS IT WORTH WATCHING?
Revenge yarns are a dime a dozen and we’ve seen the evil A.I. trope a thousand times before (though the idea seems to hit a little harder now that A.I. functionality is being normalized), but the real draw of Upgrade comes in the form of Whannell’s unique creative vision. The director finds clever ways to work around the obvious constraints of the project’s budget, justifying this decidedly lo-fi future by grounding it in a believably grim reality.
Sure, the flick could have benefited from a larger effects budget (especially when it comes to bringing some of these not-so-futuristic locations to life), but the action scenes are satisfying precisely because Whannell finds ways to highlight the absurdity of these situations through Grey’s point of view instead of relying on cartoony choreography and hundreds of extras. The unconventional camera movements and framing are just extra icing on the cake, with the production team reportedly using a smartphone’s gyroscope to synchronize Logan Marshall-Green’s acting with their camera in order to produce mind-bending images.
And speaking of Green, the film also benefits from his memorable lead performance. The actor’s usual aloof demeanor greatly contrasts with the coldly-calculated movements of his killing machine persona, and I really appreciate how his face continue to display shock and awe in response to the carnage in front of him while the rest of his body goes through the smooth motions of dispatching henchmen like he’s simply taking out the trash.
This ties into how the unseen STEM is also a compelling character in and of itself, fulfilling a dual role of savior and villain without ever coming across as Green simply talking to himself. In fact, I would have liked to see this uneasy rapport expanded on in more movies (or even a TV show, like Blumhouse has already proposed).
All in all, the film is way more entertaining than its simple premise and budget would have you believe, and it’s a shame that we don’t get these low-budget studio experiments as often as we used to.
WHAT MAKES IT HORROR ADJACENT?
When Whannell is involved with a film, you know you’re in for a grisly ride. Upgrade may not be as overtly sadistic as the Saw movies, but it certainly features more than its fair share of violence and gore. In fact, there are several memorable deaths in the film (like that especially gnarly knife fight towards the beginning of the movie), with many of these kills feeling more like something you’d see in a sci-fi themed slasher than a futuristic action flick.
This mean streak extends to the film’s dark and dingy atmosphere, with nearly every corner of this believable future feeling dirty and dangerous despite technological advancements. From run-down apartments to rainy back alleys, it’s pretty clear that Whannell was going for a somber and oppressive mood here, and I think horror hounds are likely to appreciate the ensuing ambience.
There’s also the inherent body-horror behind the concept of having your arms and legs act on their own while you’re forced to tag along for the ride. While this loss of bodily autonomy is used to great comedic effect in the aforementioned Venom, Upgrade really makes you question the existential aspect of this situation once the novelty of being able to beat up bad guys wears off and our main character is left to deal with the gruesome aftermath.
Upgrade doesn’t exactly reinvent the sci-fi wheel, but it would have been right at home among the schlocky genre classics of the grindhouse age. While I would enjoy a return to the dark future established by the movie, I appreciate that we had this brief glimpse at an uncomfortably possible tomorrow and would recommend it to any horror hound willing to dive into a virtual nightmare.
There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.
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