Upgrade. 2018. Directed & Written by Leigh Whannell.
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen, Abby Craden, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, & Betty Gabriel.
Blumhouse Productions/Goalpost Pictures
Rated R. 100 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article contains heavy spoilers
For Father Gore, the bar for action/sci-fi/horror has always been The Terminator. James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd’s 1984 movie is timeless. When I first saw it there was an indelible mark left on my sensibilities as a film lover. Every so often another similar story comes along and grabs me personally. Recently The Guest and now Upgrade have hit me with as much force as The Terminator. The only difference being time will tell if those are as enduring.
Upgrade hits all the right notes for action, same goes for its sci-fi and horror elements. Leigh Whannell’s second feature is a highly original slice of genre love. Aside from that, Whannell opens up an important conversation about humanity in regards to our relationship to technology. Morality and individual responsibility haven’t caught up to the innovative world of technology. We’re sprinting ahead fast, but is it progress for the sake of progress? Whannell explores the terrors of technology via body horror that’ll visually kick your ass. It’s a treasure trove of expertly choreographed fight scenes, abject gore, sociopolitical commentary, and Logan Marshall-Green again proving his worth as a solid leading man. Above all the movie has valid concerns about technological singularity.
“There’s some things that people do better”
Marshall McLuhan’s theories about media/technology are particularly relevant to Whannell’s screenplay. McLuhan wrote about technology, in its various forms, as extensions of the body: the camera’s an extension of the eye, the internet/Google’s an extension of the brain, the car’s an extension of the feet. These extensions allow our bodies to go places we regularly cannot. In Upgrade, Grey Trace (Marshall-Green) becomes an extension of technology. McLuhan’s reversed here. Whannell depicts a technocratic future where our physical flesh merely extends the capabilities of technology, merging its innovations with corporeal form.
One especially McLuhanesque moment shows how Stem – the microchip upgrade Grey’s implanted with by his eccentric bourgeois buddy Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) – allows the mind to merge with the internet. He’s given instant access to everything online. The mind becomes one of the city’s various overlapping networks, melting into the urban circuity of post-modernity.
What happens when technology and the body are merged in less than ethical ways? Our morality must evolve with technologies, which it hasn’t— we’ve allowed technologies to corrupt us. Look at how Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and all these other forms of new media have altered our social relationships, sometimes irreparably. Grey’s journey with Stem unveils a world of dark technology where people are used like lab rats and a surveillance state has completely annihilated privacy, and in which the human body is commodified worse than ever before as a piece of capitalist machinery, and – in the military’s case – a weapon of war.
The villainous Fisk (Benedict Hardie) represents a misuse of state power and a lack of morality in the government. He was turned into a weapon. Now he uses his body’s weaponry to get what he wants, to the point he’s transformed into a technology-based supremacist whose only respect is for “upgraded humans.” Our naive morals can be dangerous in combination with fast developing technologies with which we’re not prepared to deal quite yet.
“I’m not in control of my body, detective. It kind of does what it wants.”
Whannell utilises body horror to illustrate the anxieties about humans merging with technology. The abject – here, represented by brutal gore, including torn open faces, bloody cuts, slashed flesh – is what Julia Kristeva considers as the place where meaning breaks down after the loss of a clear distinction between subject/object. This fits with the body v. machine. Once the human body loses its natural form and the lines between flesh and technology blurs, the subject and object are no longer certain. Moreover, the abject represents the body’s limitations even in the face of technology’s capabilities.
At times, Grey controls himself— at others, Stem takes over. Without gore there’s also a disorientation. Grey deals with Stem as a literal voice inside his head, like technology and schizophrenia rolled into one. The innovative fight sequences are part of this theme. They’re filmed in such a way Grey appears literally not in control of his body. Stationary, tilting camera angles disorient us, along with Grey, and visually signal when Stem has full control over the corporeal.
In the end, Steam obliterates Grey’s mind, relegating his consciousness to “a better place” where he’ll believe his wife’s alive. Through the gory abject we arrive at this place as an audience, too. Grey’s no longer Grey, he’s an amalgam of man and machine. The object-subject relationship’s been subverted in every way. Ultimately symbolic of how technology obscures the mind to the real world with a “fake world” like that of virtual reality (etc), shaping us into people who co-exist in two worlds— one real and one totally constructed via imagination.
In every way, for Father Gore, Upgrade is a masterpiece.
The action, the horror, all the science fiction, it melts into one impressive genre movie. Whannell’s absolutely an important writer today in the genre world. He’s given us lots to enjoy before now between Saw and Insidious. Looks like he’s getting better with age. He’s delivered all the awesomeness expected of body horror crossed with action and sci-fi touches. More importantly, he offers genre with meaning. Movies can be great without social/political commentary or any other motives behind it. Chances are Whannell wasn’t trying to write his manifesto, just trying to make a damn good flick. This doesn’t change the fact genre stories can be huge in theme and speak so much to our real lives, no matter if they’re far fetched, wild tales.
This is one movie I could watch back to back. I can already imagine I’ll be watching this in another 20 years time, same as I’ve been doing with The Terminator. As we go further into the future, genre will have more to tackle as previously speculative fiction becomes concrete reality. Translation: we need more movies like Upgrade.