Upgrade Deconstructs the Revenge Film

Upgrade is a clever genre mash-up, at once indulging in genre thrills and commenting upon them. Written and directed by Aussie Leigh Whannell – who you’d remember as the writer and co-star of Saw – the film merges the tropes of the traditional Death Wish revenge flick with speculative sci-fi. Protagonist Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is a luddite in a tech world, rebuilding muscle cars in an era where sleek self-driving cars are the norm. His world is torn apart when his wife (Melanie Vallejo – one of the many Aussie character actors populating the cast) is murdered and he’s paralysed; then reconstituted when enigmatic billionaire Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) recruits Grey to trial an experimental system – ‘Stem’ – that repairs his damaged spine and returns his movement.

Initially, Upgrade seems like little more than a stock revenge storyline occurring in a near-future setting. If it were simply that, it would still be an excellent movie. As director – of only his second feature, after Insidious: Chapter 3 – Whannell demonstrates a very Australian knack for making a modest budget look expensive. The world of Upgrade is a convincing combination of sleek futurism and grimy garbage; we spend our time equally in tech genius’ hyper-stylised lairs and drug addict’s dingy houses. Marshall-Green is a compelling lead: handsome (if barely distinguishable from Tom Hardy), sturdy, tormented. Believable.

The action scenes are the real highlight. When Whannell’s frequent collaborator James Wan briefly took the reins of the Fast and the Furious franchise, he innovated some of the fight scenes by locking his camera’s movement to the actors’ (or, more likely, their stunt doubles’) bodies. So when Dwayne Johnson lifts Jason Statham up, spins him and slams him into a glass table, the camera stays with Statham’s body and makes it seem as thought the world is revolving around him. Whannell iterates this technique here; when Grey begins to hunt down the men responsible for his wife’s murder, he allows Stem to control his body. During these sequences, the camera locks onto Marshall-Green as he performs biologically implausible movements, creating a sense of hyper-competence, even invulnerability.

More than that, these camera movements suggest Grey’s subservience to the generic features of the revenge fantasy he’s living in. In Furious 7, Wan’s camera movements were an impressive, attention-grabbing gimmick. In Upgrade, Whannell hints at the mechanics of these flourishes – in order for the camera to capture Grey’s movements, they must be precise and carefully pre-planned; deterministic. Such it is with the typical revenge film. Whether opting for a morally hectoring approach (‘violence begets violence!’) or pulpier antihero vibe, revenge films are all about structure. They require irredeemable villains, unforgiveable loss, incompetent justice systems. A single man (or, occasionally, woman) who can set things right. The entire film is warped to serve the vengeful desires of its protagonist; to support them or challenge them.

Which brings us to Stem. If Upgrade were simple a stock revenge storyline in a sci-fi setting, Stem would be a means to an end: a way to explain both the depth of Grey’s loss and his superhuman abilities. Here, Stem is a perpetual voice in Grey’s ear (voiced by Simon Maiden); initially encouraging then dominating, motivating our protagonist to fight, to kill, to torture. Moral decisions are abdicated to a miniature machine, much as the morality of pulpy revenge films is obviated by a narrative carefully structure to avoid blaming its (anti)hero.

I can’t really talk in more detail about Stem without getting into spoiler territory. But suffice to say, the presence of Stem (and its inherent amorality) allows Whannell to both provide genre thrills – violence, car crashes, the whole kit-and-kaboodle – while interrogating the underlying system of thought behind such films. The moral here isn’t a facile fable about the circularity of violence, but a recognition that responsibility – and complicity – is complex. There are dense thematic layers here, questions about the progression of technology (particularly surveillance), post-humanism, freedom and forgiveness. All the while, Upgrade refuses to degrade into navel-gazing academia; it remains a thoroughly entertaining, aesthetically impressive time at the movies.

4 stars

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