(small spoilers ahead)
So, I think it’s fair to say that I’m a big fan of Leigh Whannel. His iconic movie Saw, which he starred in and wrote alongside long-time collaborator and star in his own right James Wan, was really my introduction to the kind of horror I love: pretensions of cerebrality, but at it’s heart, dense, entertaining, twisty-turny character-driven screeching panic. Beyond that, he’s gone on to have a killer career in some of the best-recieved and most-watched horror franchises of the last ten years, including Insidious (the third movie of which was his directorial debut). He’s a dedicated purveyor of horror, gleefully dedicated to the genre and all the toys he can play with within it.
Is Whannel the finest writer or director out there? Certainly not – his work has a blunt edge to it that doesn’t work for everyone, and he clearly subscribes to a lot of tropes that he grew up on within the genre. But I love horror, so seeing anyone have such a great time with it (See also: Rob Zombie) makes my telltale heart a little warmer.
But one subset of horror that he hasn’t really gotten his teeth into before is science fiction, and that’s exactly what Upgrade, written and directed by Whannel, finally puts right. And man, how.
Upgrade follows Grey (played by the uncanny Tom Hardy-alike Logan Marshall-Green, in what will surely be the film everyone secretly prefers to Venom), a man in the near future who is paralysed after a seemingly random attack that leaves his wife dead. A mysterious and reclusive tech genius (Harrison Gilbertson, channeling Near from Death Note) offers him a revolutionary implant that will repair his body, which Grey accepts with the view of avenging his wife – but the implant, Stem, soon begins to exert unexpected control over its unsuspecting subject.
Now, I’ll say one thing for damn sure: it’s great to have a sci-fi movie that doesn’t feel as though it’s trying to directly lift from Blade Runner. I’m sick of noodle shops and po-faces, and Upgrade doesn’t care for anything of that – densely layered with crazy technology (tiny blades that you sneeze into your victim, for delightful example), it’s got a striking visual style and a bold-ass sense of humour, letting Whannel’s trademark bluntness turn into self-aware nods to its own absurdity. Upgrade is the most I’ve heard people laugh in the cinema in a long time, and I’ve seen several actual comedies this year, so make of that what you will. And it lands the serious stuff too, with Grey’s attempts at reconciling with his new body and the loss of his wife striking in their vulnerability and helplessness.
And then there’s than direction. I never would have pinned Whannel for having such a distinctive eye for action, but Upgrade has some of the most kick-ass fight scenes I’ve seen in months: the implant controls Grey during these fight sequences, and the way the camera moves with a smooth, controlled inorganicness throughout them just underlines the seasickness of the implanted invader in our protagonist’s brain. It’s head-spinning stuff – or head-cleavering, as the case may be, because Leigh Whannel still loves his gore – and the film is worth seeing for that alone.
But above all, it’s a tight, taut, very entertaining sci-fi thriller. It’s a little slow in the first act, where the film tries to justify fridging the main character’s wife to provide him motivation, but when it picks up, it’s a breathless, action-packed, leanly-plotted exercise in how to get action-thrillers right. It feels like a film with something to prove, out to make a point, and if that something was Leigh Whannel’s ability to write and direct his own stories outside of franchises, well, consider it proven.
Bold, brash, funny, and intently fun, Upgrade is a mad mesh of ideas: Croenenberg-esque body horror, Black-Mirror style suburban sci-fi with a twist in the tale, John Wick in the action department, to say it has it all would be an understatement. There aren’t many films I would recommend for a pure jolt of cackling entertainment, but Upgrade is one of them, and it’s for sure this year’s indie film that could. And hey, even if you hate it, just watch out for the adorable James Wan reference, for all us fangirls who never got over Saw.
(header image courtesy of The New Yorker)