When did we collectively decide that summer moviegoing should be franchise fare only? Aside from the odd comedy or rare sleeper hit, there’s been this horrible recurrent trend that the summer movie session is ripe for every manner of sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, and intellectual property to dominate the box office. The problem is, these films are becoming increasingly unsatisfying and they never quite feel like the kinds of big crowd pleasers that will stand the test of time.
Hear me out, but it’s really films like Upgrade that should be dominating the summer box office. Whereas most studio pictures refuse to tell a completed narrative, hopeful that they can leave the backdoor wide open for more sequels, smaller films usually offer more complete experiences. The limited budgets also require some more creative, conservative storytelling. Even better, these kinds of smaller films often understand how to really honor their influences. At its heart, Upgrade is reminiscent of those gritty 1980s exploitation films, the kind that feature ultra-violence designed to shock its audience and elicit big emotions towards their themes. If Hollywood is so insistent on aping 1980s Hollywood, then we deserve more films like Upgrade, whose filmmakers have done their homework and quite ably deliver a tight, satisfying film.
There was a massive resurgence of horror films in the 1980s, most of these being exploitation films that capitalized on popular premises or trends — particularly a large focus on uncommonly more graphic or realistic violence. Not all of these films were critically acclaimed, and that’s understandable given their pitiful budgets or their low aims to simply cash in on a fad, but every once in a while, an exploitation film would come along to prove that this subset of filmmaking should be more defined by a sense of fearless filmmaking. Some examples of critically-acclaimed exploitation films are George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, two stalwarts of their genre that are just as thematically rich and cognizant of the time period as they are frightening.
In fact, sometimes this kind of micro budget filmmaking is the perfect way to analyze some kind of topical themes or ideas that permeate a society. Since they are often films from the action, thriller, science-fiction, or horror genres, filmmakers can appeal to a wider audience by leaning into genre tropes and trappings while feathering the work with ample thematic material. Most people wouldn’t expect a film like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be about the predatory nature that America adopts towards the younger generation, but it was a very real reflection of the fear Tobe Hooper had about being drafted into the Vietnam War. Upgrade’s aims are more obvious than that film’s, but considering we live in a technologically-dependent society, it doesn’t make what it has to say about the future any less tantalizing.
Upgrade is a deceptively simple film that is smartly straightforward. It’s a revenge film, where people utilize new technologies to help them achieve their goals. Our hero, Gray Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) watches his wife die in front of his eyes and takes a bullet to his spine, which leaves him quadriplegic. He’s gifted the opportunity to test a new technology known as STEM that will act as a supplemental receptor to reattach his nerves and basically make him a superman — but the biggest twist is that STEM is also an artificial intelligence, capable of thinking and eventually making its own decisions. While it must wait for Gray’s permission before it can act, soon it becomes clear that STEM has designs of its own.
To say anymore would be spoiling too much. The film’s final act balances several big twists that are best seen in action. But it’s important to understand how the film’s technology is capable of a great many things. Although Upgrade is set in the future, it mirrors the way new technology is constantly introduced in the real world. There seems to be a fix for everything, and anything is possible if the science has advanced far enough. But there’s a level of responsibility inherent to utilizing these new technologies. Who is responsible for the actions taken with them — the user or the device? Upgrade challenges that notion, particularly as STEM becomes more and more autonomous as the story goes along.
The revenge aspects of the story become increasingly troublesome to Gray as the story advances. While most modern thrillers feel the need to use violence as a form of vindication, almost saying that the carnage is justified because of the original abhorrent action (which is usually the murder of a loved one, just to make the stakes personal), Upgrade does something unique by making Gray increasingly horrified by his actions. Make no mistake, this is an incredibly violent film, filled as it is with some effectively pulpy practical effects that feel incredible reminiscent of 80s shockers. But there’s a weight to that violence because the film actively questions whether or not we are complicit for reveling in the bloodshed. Is a violent action justified by its attempt to remedy another, equally violent action? That mindset is pretty dark, and it’s insidiously evident in most modern day revenge thrillers, so the fact that Upgrade instantly challenges that notions — and shows the consequences — is refreshing.
It’s still a pretty simple film and there’s nothing wrong with that. Writer-director Leigh Whannell makes good on the promise of the premise, providing plenty of kinetic thrills and bloody shocks as he unfurls his science-fiction tropes in an unfussy sort of way. Aside from Logan Marshall-Green, the acting is pretty shaky, and the story relies on a tried-and-true formula, so it’s never quite revolutionary amongst its genre. But it’s that simplicity that makes Upgrade, and films of its ilk, universally appealing and accessible. That it chooses to question the notion of revenge at the same time makes it engaging as well. Sure, most summer films are appealing and accessible, but I daresay they’ve forgotten how to be engaging, so it’s a good thing that smaller pictures like Upgrade are here to bridge the gap. If Hollywood’s insistent on flooding the theaters with big franchise pictures, they’d at least do good to sprinkle a few more concentrated genre efforts like Upgrade into the mix, because this is summer moviegoing at its most elemental: pulpy, fun, and involving.