Combustible Celluloid
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With: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Christopher Kirby, Clayton Jacobson, Melanie Vallejo, Sachin Joab, Michael M. Foster, Richard Cawthorne, Simon Maiden, Rosco Campbell, Linda Cropper
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Directed by: Leigh Whannell
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, grisly images, and language
Running Time: 95
Date: 05/31/2018

Upgrade (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Stem Spell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Upgrade may be yet another nostalgic throwback, or it may just the kind of movie we need right now. It's a sci-fi film that isn't about war or saving the universe. It has some big ideas, but it's not brainy or austere. It's full of action — fights, and even car chases — that doesn't make you feel like you may have killed some brain cells. It's a movie like they used to make 'em, like The Terminator or Robocop or They Live or The Matrix, like you'd want to rent it in a big, clunky VHS video box, but it still feels fresh and new.

Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) stars as Grey Trace (great name!), an old-fashioned guy living in a future full of soulless technology. He works on a roaring, red Dodge Charger in the garage while his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) rides home, absently pecking at her phone in the back of a sleek, ghostly, driverless car. Grey sells a sleek Trans Am to tech gazillionaire named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), and while riding back home with his wife, the computer car veers off course and gets hijacked by a group of thugs. His wife is killed, and Grey winds up paralyzed from the neck down.

Eron visits Grey in the hospital and makes him an offer. He can install a computer chip in Grey's spine that will allow him to walk again, but it's an experimental procedure, and Grey will not be able to tell anyone about it. In other words, he must continue to pretend to be a quadriplegic, fooling even his own mother (Linda Cropper). He agrees, and begins doing what any movie hero named "Grey Trace" would do: hunt for his wife's murderers. To his surprise, he learns that the new chip — called STEM — has its own intelligence (voiced by Simon Maiden), and can actually take over Grey's body movements for things like fighting.

These scenes are amazingly cool, as Grey's body fights while his face registers total astonishment. The computer anticipates attacks and defeats them with swift, clean, square movements. But this is no gleaming future world. Grey's search takes him to a tough dive bar, where all electronics are off limits, and to a strange warehouse where VR addicts spend hours or days plugged into their favorite virtual worlds, oblivious to the reality around them; it's like a crack or an opium den, gloomy and desperate. And then we get a car chase, heightened by the fact that the Charger cannot be controlled by computers; it's all analog.

The writer of this original screenplay, and its director, is Leigh Whannell, who is already known to horror fans; he has regularly worked with director James Wan and wrote the screenplays for Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010), among other things. He made his own directorial debut with the solid sequel Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), which elevated the Elise Rainier character played by the great Lin Shaye to a lead. If Upgrade has a flaw, it's that, along with its embracing of old technology, it also embraces the old penchant for populating a movie almost entirely with men. Grey's wife is out of the picture early, and his mother mostly mopes around the house. Fortunately, Betty Gabriel (great in Get Out) is here as a cop named Cortez; in her few scenes she's prickly and persistent, and a worthy character.

But in the case that it's not a throwback, how is Upgrade what we need right now? Given the recent disappointment of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the general way that giant, computer-generated franchises are carrying the movie business, and the worry over diminishing ticket sales, couldn't it be possible that audiences are becoming disconnected by the overuse of technology and too much money? It's not too much to suggest that a movie like Upgrade, with its low budget, lack of stars, and hands-on practical effects — while still being exciting and visual enough to see on the big screen — fills a much needed void. If you feel you've been missing something lately in the movies, something tactile and human, then don't miss this.

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