Friday, June 1, 2018

Hosting the Machine: UPGRADE

Upgrade is the cure for the common summer movie. It's a small, scrappy sci-fi action/thriller shot with energy and filled with creatively derivative ideas. Writer-director Leigh Whannell (who earns a hearty most-improved in my book after his dismal debut feature Insidious 3) keeps the stakes small, but the verve big. He builds a convincingly livable future world and uses the logic of its construction to twist standard old pulp revenge elements into something freshly compelling and immediate. It uses its relatively small budget smartly, styling imaginative action sequences with a visual flair built out of clever camera tricks and a marvelous lead performance that's trickier than it even looks. Logan Marshall-Green stars as a man left paraplegic after his wife's death at the hands of thieves who attack after a self-driving car accident. (Or was it an accident? The movie has all the cyberpunk noir uncertainty you'd want.) He's offered a chance to walk again by a shadowy tech billionaire (a perfectly sniveling pretty youth tycoon played by Harrison Gilbertson) and, seeing as the alternative is despair, he takes the chance. A tiny experimental computer is inserted into his spine, allowing energy to flow from his brain back to his limbs. It's a miracle. But there's a twist. There's now a voice in his head. It's the computer. It wants to help its host get revenge on his wife's killers. To do so, it wants control. Where the movie goes next is largely unsurprising, but deft and satisfying in the way it piles on complications and future-shock bio-tech ideas (like a baddie with a gun implanted in his arm like a Cronenberg design). 

A large portion of the appeal in the film's escalating entertainment is Marshall-Green's performance, as he becomes an alternately scared and emboldened bystander in his own body. As he heads out to find vigilante justice -- cross-cut with a determined detective (Get Out's Betty Gabriel) suspicious of the mounting body count that was her suspects -- the computer turns him into a kung fu master. The machine controlling him allows his body to anticipate attacks, systematically taking apart his combatants in dizzying flourishes of robotically fluid physicality. (Also, in the neatest trick of all, it helps him draw by having him grip a pencil, then moving his hand rapidly like an inkjet printer.) It's fun enough to watch well-choreographed punches and kicks mixed in with explosively gory uses of everyday objects. There's a whole other layer of delight when the man doing this action wears a look of overwhelmed surprise. The camera sticks close to the body, turning and pivoting and panning with smooth, eerily composed moves, as if the film itself is in sync with its hero's digitally enchanted reflexes. His face and his movements are eerily separated, and impressive feat of whole-body acting. As the techno-thriller reaches its conspiratorial fever pitch, it digs into its revenge element's prerequisite cautionary tale while dovetailing with technology run amuck paranoia. It's a sweet twofer. All this fun and done in barely over 90 minutes? What a blast, and what a nice surprise, to leave the multiplex's latest offering wanting more in a good way.

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