SXSW 2018 Review/Interview: UPGRADE

By Mark Saldana 

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

I went into this South by “Midnighter”with high hopes, but restrained expectations. Writer/director/actor Leigh Whannell had previously impressed me with his work on the Saw, Insidious, and Conjuring franchises, but my instincts told me that this foray into pulpy science fiction could be something really special.  Well, my instincts were sbsolutely correct, as I left this film so pumped and excited. Upgrade is not only a fantastic and badass flick, it is a movie in which Leigh Whannell has proven himself as a genuine genre talent.

In the near-future, a time when humanity has made major scientific breakthroughs, a man named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Greene) is anything, but enthusiastic about the advanced world in which he lives.  Very old-fashioned, Trace prefers the low tech world of classic muscle cars he can fix and drive himself, despite his employer (Harrison Gilbertson) being the head of an advanced tech company.  Grey and his beloved wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) get mugged by a group of thugs, leaving him paralyzed and his wife dead.  After this devastating incident occurs, Grey’s boss offers him a radical, yet highly experimental option to recovery.  With an advanced artificial intelligence chip implanted into his spinal cord, the broken man is able to walk again; however, this new technology has some ideas and a mind of its own. That mind influences Trace to track down the killers who destroyed his life and eliminate them with extreme prejudice.

Written and directed by Whannell, Upgrade is an insane, giddy and sometimes gory ride that is sure to make audiences laugh, cheer and gasp. And that’s exactly the responses it received by the SXSW audience including me.  I had so much fun with this movie, even if the premise is a little goofy.  Whannell brings his gory horror sensibilities to this sci fi action-thriller and the results are pure popcorn magic

As the protagonist, Grey Trace, Logan Marshall-Greene delivers a tour-de-force performance that is not only physically demanding, but also superb on both dramatic and comedic levels.  Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel also stars as police detective Cortez, who wants to do what is right and just, even if it means stopping Trace from completing his revenge mission.  After enjoying her performances in this film, Get Out, and other Blumhouse movies, I totally get why she is a regular.

At the festival, I was given a wonderful opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with Leigh Whannell, Betty Gabriel, and Logan Marshall-Greene.  Whannell’s youthful enthusiasm, that is clearly evident in his work, was ever-present during the interview, though he actually has much in common with his technologically trepidatious Upgrade protagonist. He talked about the joys of working on horror films, particularly Blumhouse productions.  “I have never seen films get off the ground faster than they do at Blumhouse.” When Whannell and his creative partner James Wan first met with producer Jason Blum for their film Insidious, they knew they had found the right production company. “Jason Blum said the magic words that James and I were in desperate need of. ‘I can’t give you much money, but I can give you total creative freedom. You can make whatever you want.'”

I asked Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel about her Blumhouse experience and what keeps her returning to these productions.  “It’s great to be employed (laughs) and they employ me quite a bit. It feels like I have a cheerleading squad behind me.  I can trust that they will always be there for me and allow me creative freedom.”  Logan added, “I’m pretty sure I heard Jason Blum say, ‘Get me Betty Gabriel.'”

Because I was rather taken and impressed with the movement and physicality of Logan’s character, I had to ask him about the process of developing this very specific type of body language and movement when the A.I. takes over.  “It was definitely a bit of a leap of faith.  I worked with guy named Darren Inkster who is a former Cirque Du Soleil guy.  I woke up at 5 am and worked with Darren for a couple of hours and then I would go do stunt work.  It was about finding the emotional passenger, so when STEM (the A.I) comes online he (Grey Trace) is watching himself.” It sounds like an arduous and demanding  process, but the results are superb when these moments play out on screen.

And the best way to appreciate the hard work and creativity that went into this movie is to go see it on the big screen.  Upgrade opens nationwide in theaters on June 1 and is  a movie I must highly recommend.



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