Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions have only tightened their 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, was inexplicably given a pretty small theatrical release back in June. It was only available in a handful of Canadian theatres for about a week in July in spite of a strong critical response. Nonetheless Upgrade is now available on streaming platforms.
Upgrade is a sci-fi/horror ‘upgrading’ of 1970’s exploitation-style revenge films. Set in a future where technology is integrated into virtually all aspects of life, Grey Trace is paralyzed and his wife murdered by a group of thugs. Despite being a technophobe, Grey allows himself to be implanted 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 find and take revenge on his wife’s killers.
Whannell Gives Exploitation Films An ‘Upgrade’
Earlier this year, Eli Roth’s remake of the 1970’s vigilante classic Death Wish was greeted with collective shrugs from filmgoers. Part of its failure was a matter of timing. With gun violence debates raging in the public sphere, no one was probably clamouring to re-visit Death Wish. It didn’t help that Roth offered a tone-deaf, straight-faced remake, completely failing to read the broader sociopolitical mood relative to the original film’s 1970’s origins.
Whannell doesn’t just ‘upgrade’ the vigilante exploitation film with its incorporation of technology.
But where Roth failed, writer and director Leigh Whannell shows a much keener sense of how to adapt the premise for our current times. Whannell just doesn’t ‘upgrade’ the vigilante exploitation film with its incorporation of technology. Upgrade shifts the focus from violent street crime, instead opting to incorporate ideas that include 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 here including the obligatory scene where the protagonist truly discovers that the law will never bring him justice. But Whannell seemingly embraces some of these formulaic narrative devices, adopting an ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach to Upgrade that works. Revenge thrillers have remained popular for a reason and, like the best of them, Upgrade expertly exploits audience frustration with injustice.
Upgrade is aided in this regard by Whannell’s kinetic fusion of violence and humour.
Upgrade is aided in this regard by Whannell’s kinetic fusion of violence and humour. Undoubtedly drawing on his history with the Saw franchise, Whannell delivers some wickedly fun scenes of vengeance. Bones are broken and blood gushed in inventively choreographed 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 from other revenge thrillers with its 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. Betty Gabriel is sadly wasted 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