At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Upgrade “2018”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Upgrade “2018”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Cyberpunk Action/ Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Benedict Hardie, Linda Cropper, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Kai Bradley; Voice of: Simon Maiden/Runtime: 100 minutes

I think it is safe to say that out of all the brilliant concepts that have become both commonplace to say nothing of quite supportive and obliging staples of the day to day in the world around us, AI smart voice assistants like Alexa and Siri are one of the more recognizable examples that immediately comes to mind. Yet even though this dynamic duo does a wonderful job at doing things like playing some relaxing tunes, finding out the weather for the week ahead, turning on the kitchen light when you get home so you don’t stumble about your home like a moron, or even giggle in a creepy manner that seemingly serves as confirmation of sinister supernatural forces at work in the world around us there are limits to what they can do. Namely I don’t think Alexa or Siri can merge with your brain, take over your body, or even make you a brutal device that can deliver a serious butt whoopin’ (at least as far I know). Yet in the year 2018, movie goers were introduced to an AI that could do those things in a slice of cinema known as Upgrade from iconic in certain film circles scribe/actor Leigh Whannell. Indeed here is a sci-fi version of Death Wish that is wonderfully made, terrifically acted out by a terrific cast of players, and manages to be both visceral and highly energetic whilst also conjuring up for you, the viewer a bleak yet riveting analysis of the relationship between man and machine that by the time it’s done will not only leave you chilled to your very core in the way that insightful cinema in this vein does so phenomenally well, but also perhaps a bit more wary of that Alexa or Siri-enhanced device you just installed.

The plot is as follows: Set in a possible near future, Upgrade gets its riveting saga underway by introducing us to our hero Mr. Grey Trace. Grey, we are rather quickly able to perceive, is an old-school, get your hands dirty type of guy who has no issue in making it clear how unnerved he is about this future’s technology especially with how it is increasingly taking the human component out of seemingly everything. Yet for as much as our hero is a technophobe, we see that his wife Asha who he loves more than life itself is the exact opposite right down to taking great delight in her car that drives itself since she feels the more technology takes care of for her, the more time she gets to spend with Grey. Speaking of cars I guess I should also let you know that our hero is the kind of guy who spends his days fixing up iconic cars of yesteryear since our story gets set in motion when we see our hero, with his wife in tow, deliver a restored vehicle to a very successful tech whiz by the name of Eron Keen. A wiz who, we soon learn, has created a device known as STEM which, according to Keen, could be the bridge that finally connects mankind and technology in a way never thought possible. However for as joyous as this discovery is, we see that tragedy is also just around the corner. Tragedy which takes the form of our hero and his wife not only getting in an accident on their way home, but then being pulled from their vehicle by some men only for Asha to be brutally killed and our hero left crippled. A fair amount of time later, we see that our now-stuck in a wheelchair quadriplegic hero, finding himself just emotionally done with being a part of the realm of the living, decides he is going to end his life by overdosing on his medication. We soon see that he is unsuccessful in his attempt and finds himself back in the hospital where he quickly gets a rather unusual visitor. One who takes the form of Eron himself who, seeing how much emotional agony and despair our hero is going through, is there to give him a rather incredible offer. Namely that he is willing to offer him the opportunity to undergo a covert surgery which will see our hero bond with STEM which would help him *in theory* be able to use everything below his neck again and thus get his life back for all intents and purposes. Enticed by the opportunity to get the chance to really live again, we see our reticent hero decide to accept this offer and finds that the operation is an immense success and that he can now move like he used to before the incident. With that said however, there are a couple of caveats to the deal. Namely that he cannot reveal this to anyone in his life like his loving mother and that STEM is now in his head communicating with him. It is the latter caveat that soon proves to be more of an asset as we see STEM prove its worth when it finds some missed clues in the literal box of evidence that a member of the police named Detective Cortez had left for our hero to sift through. Suffice it to say that as this highly unlikely partnership of man and machine begin to try and find the men who butchered our hero’s wife it isn’t long before we begin to see that there might be more to this than meets the eye and that STEM might have a ulterior motive to helping Gray that goes far beyond simply trying to help him “find peace and/or closure”. As to if that is the case all I can say is that is something I will leave for you to find out for yourself dear reader….

Now despite the fact that this slice of cinema manages to provide just enough in terms of a prologue in order to get us sold without having to engage in some serious cinematic acrobatics and extend the runtime any further than it has to, this slice of cinema does admittedly do a fairly good job at establishing our hero’s life before the accident with a sense of authentic emotion as well as realistic happiness as well. As a result, this also helps immensely in conjuring up a genuine feeling of tragic loss in the moments where we see everything he holds dear swiftly and viscerally taken away from him. Of course, this film does give our hero a few moments to wallow in, to say nothing of nearly annihilate himself as a result of, his grief, but soon the film moves forward and decides to kick things up a notch by finally bringing STEM into the mix. I say kick things up a notch because the film makes the brilliant creative decision to have STEM operate initially like an in-body version of say Siri or Lexa right down to having a similar voice, but then quickly shows it has features those two don’t (hopefully). Namely that STEM can help our hero walk again to say nothing of the fact that if our hero gives his permission, STEM is able to take over Grey’s body on a physical level and allow him to kick some serious butt. As a result, the film does give us some wonderfully amusing moments akin to something we would see in the Tom Hardy Venom movies courtesy not only of our hero and his new buddy buddy starting to acquaint themselves with each other, but also with our hero starting to figure out all the things his new chum can help him accomplish that he couldn’t previously. It is also in these moments where the film’s lead actor, one Logan Marshall-Green really does his part in making this film work on the level it does besides other reasons I will go into it later on in this review. Indeed Green manages to convey beautifully Grey’s astonished, intrigued, and quite often appalled responses in a manner similar (again) to Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock as he sees STEM take over and really kick serious butt thus convincing us that this guy’s body now has another mind at work to say nothing of the fact that it isn’t really all that fond of throwing its punches. Now in the moments where our main character has to go into attack mode against his foes in this, this film makes the brilliant choice to present these action beats in a manner that proves to be a beautiful mix of chaotic yet also energetic all rolled into one. Also working beautifully in synch with these almost superheroic action beats is the fact that the camera is permitted to be just as swift and in motion as the maneuvers themselves As a result, this slice of cinema is able to brilliantly provide the viewer with the brutal potency of the infamous shaky cam whilst also permitting them to actually see everything that is going on all rolled into one. It’s also worth pointing out that although this film is by no means a constant blood and guts show, the creative minds behind the camera also have no reservations about throwing our way some truly visceral and quite potent moments of vicious violence throughout the film. It is with that bit of bloody madness in mind that I should also point out how wonderful of a job the ever-growing divide between our hero’s more human point of view and STEM’s clinical and emotion-less manner of butchering people does permit the film to insightfully analyze some thematic concepts revolving around the ideas of personal accountability, one’s sense of morality, and the breakdown of personal control in a world becoming more and more technological centric. The last of which incidentally proving to be best exemplified in this slice of cinema by the fact that although our hero might not have it in him to abuse and torment let alone slaughter the people he is seeking revenge against that’s not a problem he has to face anymore. Instead, he can now just let STEM engage the bad guys with zero degree of pause whatsoever for him due to the AI having frighteningly zero qualms about at the least beating the ever-loving snot out of someone and at the most dispatching them in a variety of visceral ways. Suffice it to say that while yes visceral and gritty action might be the big concentration this slice of cinema is operating with and yes it does manage to achieve that beautifully, this slice of cinema also manages to do a wonderful job of providing audiences with some significantly more thought-provoking concepts for them to really ponder on even after the screen cuts to black and the credits begin to roll.

Now all the positives behind the camera really don’t mean all that much if we as movie goers aren’t even half as invested as the cast of characters in front of the camera. Thankfully, this slice of cinema is the blessed recipient of a group of truly wonderful performances. This starts with the previously mentioned Logan Marshall-Green who is fantastic in the lead role here. Indeed Green does a wonderful job of giving us a guy who is on cloud nine, has it violently ripped from his grasp, and then given an unlikely 2nd chance only to have his 2nd chance unexpectedly also put him through the emotional wringer as well due to a mix of both trying to get vengeance as well as the steadily rising internal skirmish between him and STEM. More than the internal machinations of the part though, Green also does a good job from a physical standpoint as well in terms of being able to showcase with ease the moments when Grey is in control of his body and the moments when STEM is in control respectively. This slice of cinema also has several co-starring performances that are also not that bad including a fantastic Betty Gabriel as the dogged cop who is assigned to Grey’s case, Harrison Gilbertson who as the tech whiz behind STEM really did remind me of 90s Leonardo DiCaprio in many respects, and even a voice-only turn from Simon Maiden as the creepiest AI this side of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed if there is one aspect of the performances that really doesn’t work on the level that it should it would be the fact that the film is hurtling through this revenge saga at such a high rate of speed that we aren’t really given a chance to interact with the bad guys on a level that makes our fictional hatred of them feel genuine. Indeed whereas in the movie The Crow, a movie that inspired this one in certain aspects, the main bad guy and his cronies are given time to be actual characters rather than just punching bags for the hero to beat the daylights out of, Upgrade barely lets us get to know the men Grey is hunting and as such what could have been an intriguing rogue’s gallery is reduced to some tragically one note baddies.

All in all the 2018 slice of cinema that is Upgrade is the kind of cinema that starts as a truly emotional saga about a man stumbling repeatedly in his attempts to rediscover the will to live in the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, swiftly changes into an intriguing narrative about a successful bond between man and technology, proceeds to become a gritty and visceral Death Wish-style revenge saga and proceeds to finally give us as movie goers an immensely enjoyable sinister twist of a conclusion that also functions quite well as a cautionary note about the potential perils that could occur as the result of a man and a machine being blended together. Suffice it to say that it is fairly obvious that this slice of cinema was inspired by such movies as RoboCop, the aforementioned Death Wish and The Crow as well as certain entries in iconic film helmer David Cronenberg’s filmography to an extent like Videodrome. Yet even with those inspirations clearly in sight we see that film helmer Leigh Whannell doesn’t just rip off elements from those films and then crudely stitch them together and make a slice of cinema that feels like a tired rehash of elements that other slices of cinema did better. Instead, he is able to thankfully utilize those things, but also make his own mark on everything that occurs in this slice of cinema and in the process give us a film that feels like all of those things and yet also quite distinct as well. As a result, Upgrade is a phenomenally made, potently performed, and astonishingly novel slice of cinema that is a terrific time to be had to say nothing of a film that I can easily see being a treat for those movie lovers among you who love nothing more at times than to just sit back, relax, and enjoy a slice of grindhouse cinema that not only has a surprising degree of insightful commentary to it, but is also made with heart and passion, and is just done right plain and simple. Make of that therefore what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Upgrade “2018” a solid 4 out of 5.