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Non-Review Review: Upgrade

On a very fundamental level, Upgrade understands the anxieties that drive body horror.

Body horror is largely rooted in the grotesque realisation that human bodies are little more than machines made of meat. After all, every student who has studied biology understands the mechanics of the human body; the processes that drive it, the structures that hold it together, the logic by which it operates. The nerve endings that relay signals from the furthest region of the body back to the brain, the synapses that fire within the brain. Described in such cold and rational terms, human consciousness becomes a mystery, a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit. Software we don’t understand running on wet hardware.

What the neck is going on?

More than that, human bodies are inefficient machines. They are soft and squidgy, held together by tendons and muscles stretched over bones built of calcium and hinges filled with synovial fluid. The human body impressive feats of engineering from an evolutionary perspective, through the mere fact that it exists, albeit more vulnerable than the architecture or the mechanics of the world designed by human beings. Bodies can easily be bent and broken, warped and distorted. They can be attacked in so many ways, and fall into disrepair with such ease. They are unreliable, and very difficult to fix.

Upgrade understands that body horror thrives at the intersection of these twin anxieties; the nightmarish uncertainty of how human consciousness fits within the mechanics of basic biology, and the realisation that the human body would never pass basic health and safety standards for any complex piece of machinery. Upgrade wonders what happens when that machine made of meat receives an update to its operating system.

An impressive body of work.

The plot of Upgrade is fairly rudimentary. The story centres on a man who is left paralysed after a horrific accident and who is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A reclusive tech billionaire offers to implant a cybernetic chip in his brain that will restore Grey’s motor function. The chip is identified by its creator as “STEM”, although Grey himself likens it to a “roach.” A small chip with prongs protruding outwards, it certainly resembles an insect or a parasite of some description. This goes about as well as any fan familiar with the basics of science-fiction storytelling could expect.

This premise is driven by a fairly standard revenge plot. The accident that left Grey paralysed also resulted in the murder of his wife. Inevitably, with motor functions restored by hyper-advanced technology, Grey avenges himself upon the men who murdered his wife and left him confined to a wheelchair. This is a standard premise, playing into the film’s grotty B-movie aesthetic in a manner that is more effective than it is engaging. It provides the film with a sense of forward momentum, albeit in a very broad and clumsy way.

A chip off the old block.

Appropriately enough, given the core themes of the film, the entire plot of the movies feels like a computer-generated response to the challenge of making a film like this. It provides just enough motivation for Grey to move in the direction that the plot needs him to move, and is simple enough that the audience can follow along without it distracting from the substance of the film itself. While the revenge narrative is perhaps a necessary evil in terms of telling a story like this, it feels very stock and rote.

There is a lot to like about Upgrade, but perhaps the best moments in the movie hinge on the terrified and horrified reactions of its lead character to both the way in which his own body works and the ruthless efficiency with which pain and suffering can be inflicted upon the human form. At several points over the course of the film, Grey is reduced to a passenger in his own body. His body moves efficiently, effectively, but not at his direction. His input has been overridden. In those moments, disconnected from his motor functions, Grey seems to finally understand how strange the idea of the body is.

A driving motivation.

A lot of the effectiveness of Upgrade comes down to a combination of leading actor Logan Marshall-Green and director Leigh Whannell. Marshall-Green has a wonderful knack for reaction, and Whannell cannily understands this. At several points in Upgrade, Whannell cleverly chooses to face the camera away from what Grey’s body is doing, trusting Marshall-Green’s reactions to convey the horror or the brutality that his hands are being used to inflict. Marshall-Green isn’t an especially strong dramatic actor, but he has remarkable control of his body; he movies like a machine, in uncanny straight lines for heightened efficiency.

There is something very jarring in the way that Grey moves once he has received his enhancement, the processor that serves to connect his brain to the rest of his body. Marshall-Green moves in jerks and starts, Grey often looking like a stop motion puppet only capable of processing a single motor impulse at any given moment. The characters in Upgrade suggest that this fusion of man and machine might be considered a new species or an accelerated evolution, and Marshall-Green skillfully pushes Grey into the uncanny valley to reinforce this idea of the human body as something subtly grotesque.

Morally Grey.

This is particularly true in the moments when Grey completely surrenders control of his body to the artificial intelligence embedded with the chip. Reinforcing the idea of the human body as a tool that can be divorced from identity or consciousness, Grey repeatedly becomes a passenger within his own corporeal form. In this sequences, with a computer chip effectively doing the driving, Grey’s body is manuevred with inhuman precision; every action is perfect, every movement calculated, every reaction meticulous. If Grey’s body is an instrument, the artificial intelligence plays it like a maestro, better than he ever could.

This is an interesting extension of body horror; not only the realisation that human bodies are soft in all the wrong places and they exist entirely beyond the concept of the self, but the dread that human consciousness doesn’t understand the mechanical processes governing the body. Early in the film, Grey attempts to handle himself in a fist fight; his movements are imprecise and awkward, resulting in a brutal beatdown. In a moment of desperation, Grey surrenders his motor functions to STEM, becoming a passenger; almost immediately, Grey realises just what the human body can do with the right processing power.

A descent chance of survival.

As blackly funny as those reaction shots of Grey might be, they underscore something deeply and profoundly unsettling. Grey was born into this body, raised in this body, home in this body. He accepted both its (and his own) limitations. However, with only a few days of experience, something completely alien is able to turn his body into a ruthlessly efficient weapon, understanding the potential of that machine better than Grey ever could and transcending all of boundaries that Grey had taken for granted. Maybe the problem isn’t the human body, but the operating system running on it. As the operating system, that’s terrifying.

Whannell’s direction reinforces this sense of disconnect. At several points during the film, when Grey surrenders his body to his constant artificial companion, Whannell’s camera fixates on Grey’s centre of gravity rather than on his head. The camera remains pinned on his torso as he turns and bends, pivots and dodges, jumps and flips. Everything else bends and distorts; the character’s surroundings, his panicked face. However, Grey’s body holds the centre of the frame. It not only effectively establishes Grey’s body as the centre of the film, but it also looks jarring and unusual in a way that is profoundly unsettling.

Eye, robots.

Update does an impressive job of realising a dystopian future on a meager budget. Whannell includes some computer-generated imagery to provide a sense of scale, but most of the world seems physical and tangible. The world of Update is just close enough to the modern world that it can be realised for the movie’s modest price tag, but with just enough deviation to firmly establish it within the larger context of science-fiction dystopias. The production design on Update is very effective; from the bulky eighties-style futuristic tech to the sterile neon lighting.

That said, Update does brush up against certain limitations of the genre even beyond the basic “revenge/retribution” narrative grafted over its body horror premise. The casting in Update is not great, the film frequently suffering from a fairly bland and indistinct ensemble who never quite manage to bring the world of the film to life. With the exception of a good supporting turn from Betty Gabriel, the characters in Update all seem like stock archetypes without any definition or personality. They are appreciably less interesting than the world that they inhabit, and the cast struggle to bring a unique slant to these templates.

“You don’t buy my alibi?”
“No. No, no, no, no, no. No.”

Still, Update is a impressive and compelling addition to the body horror canon, even if what is happening within Grey is often much more interesting than what is happening around him.

2 Responses

  1. I watched Upgrade, great movie but I never thought of it as a body horror film. Huh.

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