Sunday 2 September 2018


STEM Fatale

2018 Australia Directed by Leigh Whannell
UK cinema release print.

Blimey... this film took me by surprise. At least in terms of how well put together it is.

Upgrade is a film which was actually showing at last weekend’s FrightFest... where I ignored it completely in favour of other films. Which I’m glad I did now because... why pay extra out on a more expensive ticket when you can see it for considerably less at your local flea pit a week later? I had no idea what this was about when I saw it mentioned in my local cinema listings but the title did ring that FrightFest bell in my mind so I looked at the trailer online and immediately knew I had to see this thing.

The film is written and directed by Leigh Whannell who, amongst other things he’s done as a writer, has written and acted in the Insidious movies (he plays Specs in these movies and also directed one of them). Here he writes and directs (but doesn’t act in) something which is not a horror movie... instead it’s a full on science fiction epic made with, I would imagine, a much lower budget than some studios would throw at it but he gets absolutely first class results with what he has to spend here. The film looks great and plays like a slick and somewhat dirty sci-fi movie of the 80s or 90s... think early David Cronenberg meets Robocop and you’ll have some idea of how this movie feels.

The film is gritty and unashamedly violent but it's also is hugely entertaining and gives you something to think about too. The story is all important and this doesn’t feel like a load of set pieces half heartedly sewn together to give the audience a thrill ride... that stuff is just the icing on the cake here. This is exactly the kind of stealth movie making we need more of in modern cinema and my respect for this writer/director is really beginning to grow now.

After an opening credits sequence where logos and the title of the film are announced, rather than written, by a computer voice over a graphic representation of the sound waves of that voice, we find the film is set in a near future, not too far from the world of Blade Runner (reviewed here) and just a little step further on from something like Hotel Artemis (reviewed here). It introduces us to Grey Trace, played by Logan Marshall-Green and his wife Asha, played by Melanie Vallejo and establishes their loved up relationship in exactly the way you’d expect it to unfold before their world is pulled apart. Grey fixes up old style petrol driven cars for rich customers and we are introduced to another important character in the film, Eron Keen played by Harrison Gilbertson, in this capacity. We are then shown the dangers of technology when Asha’s self piloting car crashes and her and Grey are mugged. Or appear to be. Asha is shot  in front of Grey, who has been paralysed by a bolt shot into the top of his spine and he watches her die while the gang of villains get away.

We are then treated to a long sequence establishing how the incapacitated Grey survives and is plunged into the depths of despair, trapped in a body he can’t move and how he has to become reliant on technology he hates to do even the simplest thing. He can’t even help Detective Cortez, played brilliantly here by Betty Gabriel, who I’d seen run over by a train only weeks before at the same cinema in Unfriended - Dark Web (reviewed here), as she tries to find the people responsible for Grey’s plight.

Then Eron Keen, who also happens to be the head of a techno giant corporation, offers Grey a revolutionary chip based computer programme called STEM, which he plants into his spine and which enables Grey to move his limbs and get around again. Better than that because, when Grey lets STEM take over his body... STEM is represented by a HAL9000-like voice in his head (voiced by Simon Maiden), talking to him... he turns into a killing machine and is more than capable of finding the killers and dealing out justice himself. However, there’s more to this movie than it just being a simplistic, sci-fi laced revenge movie and that’s about all I’m going to say in regards to the story content as I don’t want to put any spoilers in here.

Upgrade is an absolutely brilliant and entertaining experience though and, where the film does delve into clichéd sci-fi areas, it does it with such a sense of grace and self awareness that you really can’t fault the writing. Nor the acting as Marshall-Green positively shines as Grey, doing a really great job which involves a lot of comedy timing, as well as the portrayal of depression and intimidating intensity called for in certain sequences of the movie.

It’s a grim film in some ways but there’s a lot of humour in here too... mainly coming from Grey’s inner dialogue with STEM and also his own reactions to what his body is doing on his behalf when he lets STEM take over. For instance, when he sees what he’s doing to people trying to attack him or when he’s looking away because he can’t bear to see what he’s doing to one of the bad guys in an interrogation scene (the camera stays with Grey’s face as we hear him slicing up the face of someone to get information).

The film also has a pretty cool score by someone called Jed Palmer which really pumps up the emotions and enhances various scenes. Alas, it’s only available away from the movie as a download so until a proper CD comes out, it looks like I won’t be able to listen to the music from this one. Which is a shame... would have been an instant purchase for me.

And I haven’t got much more to say about Upgrade. It’s a damn near perfect slice of sci-fi and I didn’t quite see the ending coming... at least not in quite the same variation as the writer went for here and, when it did look like it was going to throw away all the good work that was done with a nauseatingly nicey nice ending, it immediately sobered you up again with an alternative dose of reality which, while technically making it look like it could be continued for a sequel, absolutely shuts down the possibility of turning this into a franchise and making it much more of a self contained story. Which is something I appreciated. So, yeah, if you’re into gritty, low budget, visceral science fiction movies done right, Upgrade is definitely something that you should see. I hope this one gets a Blu Ray release soon because it’s going straight onto my Christmas list. Catch it while it’s playing.

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