R for brutality. There's no nudity, which is usually my red flag. But I don't think I ever feel more American than when I think a movie is okay because of violence. Upgrade is as much a horror movie as it is an action movie. It's shot like a horror movie in terms of lighting and gore. But the plot is straight up action. That hybrid can get pretty disturbing. The violence is somehow more visceral in this film. Sure, there is language and the movie fridges a character pretty hard. But this is not an easy movie to watch throughout. R.
DIRECTOR: Leigh Whannell
I suppose this blog has a fine line between analysis and straight up journal. I don't know if people actually think about it that much, but it takes a lot to watch a movie a day and to write a billion words of analysis on that movie. I really try to do this five days a week. That's a lot of writing. Part of what is going through my head is length. If good writing is supposed to be brief, this is the opposite of that. It really is an extension of a writing exercise that I've had to do for a few classes. It's that old chestnut where you really aren't supposed to stop and think about what you are writing. If you stop, you are doing it wrong. I really enjoy film and I really enjoy writing about film. But I also know that if overthink this blog, I'm going to stop doing it. What this really means is that I write it throughout the day piecemeal at times. For example, just so I can say I hit my routine on the right day, I'm starting this analysis at 11:30 at night. It still counts as Friday so I have the timestamp that I'm looking for. I apologize if I leave typos. I honestly am fried after each one of these things. Good proofreading and good editing should happen when you have time to rest and come back to it. With the turnaround time that I put into these things, it makes it impossible to really do that. So I have a choice: write everyday and just accept that sometimes what I write is full of typos and mistakes or write less. If I write less, I probably might not come back to this.
Okay, actually to the movie. This is another Cinefix recommendation. They get me, man. Okay, I probably get them more. This is what the video store used to be like. I would stumble across trailers for movies that looked good. Sometimes I would follow a director pretty close. But the video store was all about finding that absolute gem of a movie that may not have permeated the public consciousness. Upgrade would have been something to talk about back in the day. It hits a really sweet spot of a lot of things that I like coming together. I would like to establish that the movie has a certain quality of shamelessness about it. When I work with student actors, which doesn't happen that much anymore since I stopped teaching theatre, I always wanted to impart to them to let go of shame. If you are worried about looking silly, you never will get anything great. This doesn't mean necessarily to go big, but just to risk being kind of ridiculous. Upgrade learned that lesson in spades because it almost doesn't care that it isn't for everybody. If I had to explain the plot to you without all of the twists and revelations, we're just dealing with just another revenge plot. In this case, the revenge plot has a sci-fi twist. Grey and STEM are just a science fiction version of The Punisher. I normally roll my eyes at this kind of stuff. The same narrative has been told time and again. I actually don't even love The Punisher anymore because people have copied that old dog and pony show a billion-and-a-half times. But Upgrade really uses the Punisher plot simply as window dressing. The movie needed an excuse to let loose and show violence in a way that hasn't really been filmed before. If the Punisher plot gets us there, it gets us there. But Cinefix was completely right in its recommendation of this film. It's completely underrated and it kind of changes how we view violence in movies. When The Matrix showed up on the scene, everyone wanted to be The Matrix. Bullet time was all the rage. With The Matrix's plot, bullet time was kinda sorta justified. But the copy cats really had no reason to do it. It was fine. It was pretty easy to ignore. But the violence in Upgrade might only work with the story attached to it. The two things that make it work: the locked camera (WHICH IS JUST READ MIGHT HAVE BEEN AN iPHONE?!?) and not Tom Hardy.
I'm sure that there's an actually name for the effect with the camera. Again, it's almost midnight and I ran four miles within the last hour so my brain's all over the place, but I'm just going to call it the "locked camera." That locked camera has been used with other things. It's normally something to create a sense of tension. It's such a jerky effect that keeps one object completely stable while the rest of the world comes across as insane. The effect that it creates is almost an anti-Paul Greengrass / Bourne Identity shaky cam. The purpose of the Greengrass shaky cam is to create a sense of chaos. It makes violence look way more brutal than it probably is in real life. We can't really focus on any one thing, so our brain relies on foley and quick motion to assume that the world is completely nuts. What Upgrade's locked camera does is get the same insanity from the background, but the actual action is completely clear. We get the insanity of motion and the tension of artificiality that is associated with STEM, the machine. But then you also have not-Tom Hardy. I'm super sorry, valid actor Logan Marshall-Green. But for the sake of this analysis, you are now not-Tom Hardy. I honestly thought that Tom Hardy was playing Grey. I was, like, "Man, I guess they only got one famous actor int his movie." Now I would also like to apologize to the rest of the cast. Dear The-Rest-of-the-Cast, you are probably way more famous than me. Okay, let's move on. I don't know how not Tom Hardy pulled it off. One of the conceits of the film is that Grey is not in control. The machine inside of his spine is doing all of the kung-fu. He's supposed to move like a machine that knows the precise amount of energy to rip someone apart. It's very cool. Again, I was talking about the camera helping out with that. But there's this great juxtaposition of what is going on the film . Every fight scene that I can think of has the character emote in one specific way: fight-time-rage. Okay, sometimes if the character is a villain and really good at fighting people, like a bad guy in Mortal Kombat or something, they could look bored. But rarely, do we have the actual person doing all of the fighting acting like a spectator in the film. His emotions are almost like he's on a ride and he doesn't like the way this is going. And the character grows. Honestly, the first time that he lets STEM take over, he's in shock and horror. But through the film, he actually grows comfortable with violence. That first gory moment in that guy's kitchen? That shocked me too. But by the end, as gross as the movie got, I grew really comfortable. I guess as Grey grows, we grow / regress into something that needs to feed his soul.
I hate that my go-to about these kinds of science fiction cautionary tales always make me want to say, "This would make a great Black Mirror episode." I'M GOING INTO SPOILERS, SO WATCH OUT! I think I figured out the major blocks of plot pretty early in the film. It telegraphs some things, but I also realized that this movie was way smarter than an average action movie for those blocks to work out. I Princess Bride'ed the whole thing, only I actually guessed correctly. I didn't necessarily know how to connect all the dots. I just knew the ending I wanted and I got there. The filmmakers actually did all of the heavy lifting (like that's new?) by finding a way to make that ending work in a really, REALLY satisfying way. I love downer endings. The Punisher ending often leaves us with the following: the protagonist gets what he wants. He goes into a showdown with the big villain of the film only to discover something about how the whole thing was made to bring him to this very moment. Yeah, he gets his revenge, but is not healed by this event. Okay, I don't like John Wick so I can't argue that one very well. But I really didn't want this movie to just be another one of those movies. I've seen that movie way too many times before. Do I really need that again? No, instead, I needed a second twist on top of the first twist. Whannell does this thing with telegraphing who the bad guy is the entire time and I know that's not satisfying. I don't know why I'm not satisfied with the industrialist being the monster the entire time anymore. It's just so trite. I honestly don't think that moment can ever be surprising again. But I knew that STEM had to be evil. I just wasn't really sure how. I also don't know how Grey was going to win. For a guy who really loves super bummer endings, I don't know why didn't see the movie ending on a bummer note. It's such a bleak ending and I absolutely love it. For a second, I almost decided to curse the movie. I knew that they couldn't end on "it was all just a dream" ending. I knew that they couldn't. But they planted that seed of doubt in me. It was a moment where I thought, "There's only a 10% chance that this movie is going to end with the 'it was a dream'". But it was enough! IT WAS ENOUGH that when the dream was explained, I was amazed. I knew it was what I wanted from moment one and I finally got it. This is making me sound really cocky, but that's only because I am really cocky.
I don't love fridging characters. One thing about the Punsher revenge story is that wives and daughters tend to get killed really hard. The movie seems almost to be a throwback to the Cannon film world. The design of this future almost exclusively seems to be at night. The futuristic cars look like Blade Runner knock-offs. But I don't want to go back to the Cannon Films if it means that it treats women as second class characters. I think that there are three female characters in the film. We have Grey's wife, Asha. She dies the fridge death pretty early on. We get just enough to feel for her as a character and then she dies. I want to wax poetic about this, but I don't know if I have it in me at 12:30. My baby is awake I'm trying to outlast her. Then we have Mom, who is barely a character. She's only there to show how much of a jerk Grey is being and to narc on him to the final female character. The final female character almost gives me a little bit of hope. She's pretty capable of keeping up with Grey, but she's also pretty incapable of actually making headway in this crime. Also, she's technically the antagonist for most of the film. If the story is a revenge film, whoever the cop is who is trying to stop the protagonist from getting the guy is the antagonist. Often, the antagonist is a round character who realizes that the struggle that the protagonist is undertaking is a just cause. (Heh, you can really see this in the two seasons of Netflix's The Punisher.) By having her as the antagonist, she has to be somewhat ignorant of the real stakes. She lives in a fantasy world. This means that all of the female characters, what few there are, are deficient in some way. Asha doesn't really count as a character because her only sense of ownership comes from her definition as Grey's wife. She lets computers do things for her. She isn't capable of anything. Mom represents the idea that women will betray because they are impulsive. Detective Cortez, the closest of the three women to actually get close to being a strong character, is ultimately flawed and weak. She doesn't realize what is going on and is way weaker than the antagonist. Yeah, the movie is a little broey. I can't deny that. But does it have to be? I don't want to get too gender politics for some of my readers, but would it have killed the movie to give it some women of agency? Think about how rad Fisk would have been as female? Maybe, don't fridge the wife. I know, it's part of the story. But what about fridging a kid? Asha is fighting to move on, but Grey is screwing up? I kind of like that better.
Regardless, the movie is absolutely fantastic. Upgrade is what I want to see out of an action movie. So rarely do filmmakers have something unique to offer. Perhaps it stands on the shoulders of genius, but it definitely has left its own mark on the action sci-fi landscape.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.