Jason Blum continues to tighten his grasp over the horror corner of the box office in 2018. While Truth or Dare received tepid reviews, it still grossed just north of $40 million on a tiny $3.5 million production budget earlier in April (Box Office Mojo, nd). Later this year Blumhouse still has the latest Halloween sequel to release.
Produced through Blumhouse Tilt, Leigh Whannell’s latest directorial effort, Upgrade, received a criminally small theatrical release. Though critics embraced it, only a handful of Canadian theatres showed Upgrade. Fortunately Upgrade is now available on streaming platforms.
Upgrade is a sci-fi/horror ‘upgrading’ of 1970’s exploitation-style revenge films. Whannel sets his action in a future where technology is integrated into all aspects of life. A group of thugs paralyze technophobe Grey Trace murder his wife. A tech guru offers Grey a chance for revenge. He implants Grey with an experimental computer chip called STEM that integrates with his central nervous system. Now ‘upgraded’ and able to walk, Grey uses this virtual assistant to take revenge on his wife’s killers.
Whannell Gives Exploitation Films An ‘Upgrade’
Earlier this year, filmgoers greeted Eli Roth’s remake of the 1970’s vigilante classic Death Wish with collective shrugs. Part of its failure was a matter of timing. With gun violence debates raging in the public sphere, no one was clamouring to re-visit Death Wish. It didn’t help that Roth offered a tone-deaf, straight-faced remake. Generally, horror fans don’t appreciate Roth for his subtlety. Not surprisingly then, he failed to read the broader sociopolitical mood relative to the original’s 1970’s origins.
Whannell doesn’t just ‘upgrade’ the vigilante exploitation film with its incorporation of technology.
But writer and director Leigh Whannell shows a much keener sense of how to adapt the premise for our current times. Whannell doesn’t just ‘upgrade’ the vigilante movie with its incorporation of technology. Upgrade shifts the focus away from violent street crime. Instead he opts to look at the dangers of artificial intelligence, the military-industrial complex, and tech corporations. Rather than deviantizing poverty or minority groups, Whannell updates the villains of vigilante films for our political times.
Kinetic Violence and Sense of Humour Save Upgrade
Aside from Whannell’s shift in the genre villain, Upgrade is a largely formulaic example of the vigilante film. Most of the genre’s familiar conventions are present. There’s the obligatory scene where the protagonist learns that the law can’t bring him justice. If it seems formulaic, it’s perhaps owing to Whannel’s ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach to Upgrade that works. Revenge thrillers are popular for a reason. Like the best of the sub-genre, Upgrade expertly exploits audience frustration with injustice.
Upgrade is aided in this regard by Whannell’s kinetic fusion of violence and humour.
To his credit, Whannell offers up a kinetic fusion of violence and humour in Upgrade. Undoubtedly drawing on his history with the Saw franchise, Whannell delivers some wickedly fun scenes of vengeance. Whannell choreographs bone-breaking and blood-gushing in several inventive set pieces. Whannell also managed to pack on a few moments of suspense into his hyper-violent flick. Perhaps most impressively is that Whannell puts this all together without ever betraying the film’s relatively low budget.
All of this bone-snapping violence is also accompanied by a wickedly dark sense of humour, occasionally giving Upgrade the feel of an old Looney Tunes cartoon. Most of this humour comes from the internal dialogue between Grey and STEM. The dry, matter-of-fact delivery from STEM in the increasingly bizarre circumstances offered several good laughs. A few of Grey’s one-liners fall flat but Marshall-Green’s charismatic performance leaves him largely unscathed by the film’s end.
A Dark Turn Worthy of Black Mirror
In spite of its adherence to a fairly formulaic structure, Upgrade distinguishes itself with a dark climax. It’s at this point of the movie where Whannell’s exploration of AI and tech corporations really coalesces into a coherent commentary. For audiences not interested in subtext, it’s a grim climax that works and makes Upgrade instantly memorable.
Though revenge exploitation thrillers aren’t generally known for their performances, Upgrade has a couple of good ones. Marshall-Green looks like he is having fun with his role, while Benedict Hardie makes for an intriguing villain. Whannel wastes Betty Gabriel in her role as Detective Cortex. She’s fantastic when she’s on screen, but she’s given too little to do. Harrison Gilbertson fails to make much of an impression as Upgrade’s tech guru, Eron Keen.
Upgrade is Another Standout 2018 Entry
Having finally seen Upgrade I’m even more confused as to why this sci-fi/action thriller didn’t see a wider release. It’s head and shoulders above Blumhouse’s middle-of-the-road thriller, Truth or Dare. Unapologetically violent and occasionally quite funny, Upgrade bolsters its formulaic revenge thriller narrative with some thought-provoking subtext on artificial intelligence and a killer ending. Like his fellow Saw alumnus, James Wan, Whannell continues to be a standout genre filmmaker this decade.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A