Texts by Ayman Asib Shadhin
A clarion call to all comic book fans out there who most eagerly await the arrival of the new iteration of Venom in the upcoming eponymous movie starring Tom Hardy. Now here’s a movie in the same vein. It involves a computer chip instead of an alien symbiote that can control the protagonist’s body and enhance his physical abilities. The villains here have superhuman strength too, thanks to biotechnological devices implanted inside their physiological system. And the actor playing the central character in Upgrade, Logan Marshall-Green, bears a definitive resemblance to Tom Hardy as well.
But I’m just getting ahead of myself now. Let me back up a bit.
Grey Trace is a car mechanic who lives with his corporate wife Asha in a futuristic world that he’s constantly at odds with. Driverless cars, AI gizmos waiting for verbal commands and uneven tubular constructions are the norm.
Grey takes his wife to meet one of his clients, a tech genius named Eron (not Elon!) who runs the top-tier company of their time. Eron shows them the new AI chip he’s developed, which apparently holds all the answers to man’s physical shortcomings.
Well, on the return trip, Grey and Asha fall victim to ruthless thugs after their autonomous car malfunctions. The goons kill Asha, and Grey is maimed permanently with paralysis. But all is not lost, at least not in terms of sci-fi historicity. Mr Eron offers his AI creation ‘STEM’ to be implanted within Grey’s spine to restore his motor functions. The operation is successful, and Grey is fully in control of his limbs again with the spring-boarding of STEM.
But STEM isn’t only limited to giving back his ambulatory skills. The AI starts speaking to him inside his head and lays out the options of using its extra-everything abilities to find out those responsible for his wife’s death. Together, they form the age-old duo of vigilantism with the sidekick character shifting back and forth from STEM to Grey.
The Venom similarities kick in once STEM starts talking to its host. Grey argues and negotiates with it in a manner that unfailingly recalls the way Tom Hardy talks to his symbiote in the trailers. But I’d be willing to bet that Upgrade is a better movie than Venom. Just wait till October for my prescience to prove its worth.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell made this movie on a budget that is well below the usual Hollywood action spectacle fare. But the fact that he’s the same Leigh Whannell who made the Saw and Insidious series with fellow filmmaker James Wan has inevitably added to its marketability. The visual effects and action sequences don’t give away the budgetary constraints at all. Whannell has owned the lower budget to deliver cleverly done set pieces with occasional reminders to his horror movie pedigree, by which I mean the extremely violent conclusions of every blood soaked confrontation. Also, it’s one of those few movies where I truly liked the application of the Snorricam (the method of shooting a scene in a way where the camera is actually attached to the actor’s body so that he/she doesn’t seem to move but everything around them does, to give the audience a sense of disorientation), because the effect essentially generated the vicarious sense of having a computer gadget in control of your bodily functions.
This film has a solid ending too. By solid, I don’t mean logically impenetrable or ingratiating to the audience. In the climactic moments, the movie has the guts to go all the way, over the top and way out into the horizon where you’re not entirely sure if there’s a horizon at all. The rest of the movie isn’t a let-down either. It has scraps of RoboCop (1987), but doesn’t abound in caustic satirical cabaret of corpo-cultural dominance. The execution is like Death Wish (1974) without the hell-bent gonzo of Charles Bronson. And STEM sounds like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1960), which is yet another confirmation of soothing mechanical voices being the most effectual in manipulating humans i.e. the audience.
Then why would one opt for this heavily derivative hardboiled sci-fi movie while you can summon all those classics that I just mentioned at will? Well, because it’s fun. Upgrade is fun in the most blunt and seminal way possible. It’s like having bobble heads made out of your favourite movie characters and tapping them in a manner that only cinephiliacs would appreciate. Take the flick for what it is — a cinematic equivalent of memorabilia that lie around your living room; people may not give a damn about them, but you hold them dear anyway. Because you know their stories and you remember.
Watch the trailer here!
About the writer:
Ayman Asib Shadhin is a writer based in Dhaka who writes usually in Bengali and mostly about movies. His list of favorite filmmakers ranges from Quentin Tarantino to Robert Bresson. Published book: Cine-loyd (Co-author : Arif Mahmud; 2017, Chaitanya Publications).