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Remembrance of ‘Robocops’ Past: ‘Upgrade’ Reimagines the 1980s Sci-Fi Thriller

"I didn't want to simply pay homage to [low-budget, sci-fi films from the 1980s]—I wanted to write a story about thoroughly modern themes in the spirit of those movies."

Upgrade, directed by Leigh Whannell, “is the kind of movie that gets the audience fist-pumping, then it gets them thinking, then it gets utterly insane, in all the best ways,” writes  Bobby LePire.

“It’s no exaggeration to state that cinematic sci-fi action hasn’t felt this fresh or new since The Matrix,” writes David Houghton. “Upgrade’s deliciously conceived, cobweb-blasting blow-ups might be smaller and less numerous than Neo’s increasingly overblown CG punch-tornadoes, but sweet f*** if their concepts, choreography, and sheer, precision-engineered, damn-near musical pacing won’t change your standards for action-movie creativity the instant the first one leaves you grinning a slack-jawed sense of ‘What the goddamn hell did I just watch?'”

In the film, after his wife is killed during an attack that also leaves him paralyzed, Grey Trace is approached by a billionaire inventor with an experimental cure that will “upgrade” his body. The cure—an Artificial Intelligence implant called STEM—gives Grey physical abilities beyond anything experienced and the ability to take vengeance against those who murdered his wife and left him for dead.

“As a director, Whannell packs a wallop,”  LePire continues. “This is a system shock top to bottom. Whannell handles the tonal shifts from scene to scene (in a few instances, line to action beat to line—Grey: ‘STEM, he has a knife.’ STEM: ‘I see that. We have a knife too.’ Gore all over the place) with startling aplomb, so the jokes nor the drama nor the action ever trip each other up. 

“He also ensures there is enough of a human element that the ending, which is brilliant and the only way Upgrade could end, leaves the viewer questioning how they implement technology in their lives.” To read the full article, click here.

“It’s amazing how many tightropes Upgrade masterfully walks as it tells Grey’s tightly wound story of disaster, recovery, empowerment, and all the complicated things that come when all of those things come too fast,” Houghton continues. “It’s a film of genuine and affecting human beats, but its energy level never drops below shout-at-the-screen fun. It steers full-tilt into reveling in every brutal, kinetic joy of cyberpunk superheroism, but executes its vision with serious thought and conceptual consideration.” To read the full article, click here.

Whannell recalls, “It became my goal to make a sci-fi film that had the creative freedom of an independent film whilst also making it feel like a big and expansive world. Around this time, I had an idea about a quadriplegic man who was controlled by a computer. And that is when Upgrade was born.

Read more: Upgrade Director Leigh Whannell Brings Sci-Fi Action Thrills to Our Tech-Obsessed Times

Read more: How the Director of Upgrade Made a Sleek Sci-Fi Movie on a Shoestring

Read more: Leigh Whannell Interview

“My influences during the writing of Upgrade were films like The Terminator—a perfect example of a relatively low-budget independent film that feels much bigger than it is. Besides being brilliantly written and directed by James Cameron, the film pulled off an amazing sleight of hand. Arnold Schwarzenegger played the murderous robot so well that you really believed he was a cyborg under that flesh. He IS the special effect in that movie. And this is something I wanted to do with Upgrade.”

“As a model, I used ’80s sci-fi films that I grew up with,” Whannell tells Anthony Ha. “I used the original Terminator as a great example, because if you really study that movie scene-by-scene, the science fiction and the tech is doled out very judiciously and sparingly. It’s kind of this lean-and-mean, slash-and-stalk movie that is dressed in this sci-fi skin. And I loved that.

“I feel like, if they can achieve that sort of sleight of hand in the ’80s, then we could do it now. Especially with the new advantage that they didn’t even have back then, of CG. We could use CG to augment some of the scenes. We couldn’t go bananas with it, but we could utilize it at certain moments. And I guess I’m too close to the movie, I’ve spent too long with it to know if we really succeeded, but I’m hoping that audiences feel like they’re watching a bigger movie, you know? That they’re part of a bigger world.” To read the full interview, click here.

“The 1980s were, in my opinion, a great time for science fiction films because they were the height of practical effects,” Whannell says. “When the ’90s arrived, and with them groundbreaking CGI films like Jurassic Park and—ironically—Terminator 2, the era of practical, handmade effects became much more quiet. 

“What I miss about that style though, is that the science and the fiction had to live within a box. You couldn’t conjure up anything the way a computer can, so you had to get creative. This made films like Robocop, The Thing, Scanners, Total Recall, and many more of that era my inspirations for Upgrade. I didn’t want to simply pay homage to them—I wanted to write a story about thoroughly modern themes in the spirit of those movies. Something tactile and grimy. Something audiences could see themselves in.”

“It’s just been a real goal and a dream of mine to do that,” Whannell tells Ha,” to make a movie that enjoyed the worldbuilding of sci-fi but took advantage of the creative freedom of an independent. The problem is that one is supposed to cancel the other out. You’re supposed to need studio money if you’re going to go off and make the future-set action movie. So I really was trying to have my cake and eat it, but I was obsessed with doing it.” To read the full interview, click here.

Whannell did indeed achieve his goal but it was a process he describes as “a death by a thousand cuts,” writes KC Ifeanyi

“The cuts I made to the film were not made with a machete–they were made with a scalpel,” he tells Ifeanyi. “I would go through the script page by page and line by line and take out my scalpel, and all of a sudden a line that I had written like, ‘the three guys rush at him and he takes them all out’ suddenly becomes ‘one guy rushes at him and he takes him out.’ Then I would take another look at it and say ‘. . . nobody rushes him and he doesn’t take anyone out.’ What ended up happening is that by stripping the movie back, it got better.” To read the full interview, click here

“The real-world tech glimpsed in Upgrade includes autopilot-enabled automobiles, smart homes, medical technology and scientific movements like trans-humanism, ways humans keep trying to merge man with machine. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near was a potent resource,” writes Jen Yamato

“What was interesting to me wasn’t robots; it was humans putting tech in their bodies. That idea of tech in us, and that we invite it willingly,” Whannell tells Yamato. “That’s the part of me that’s in Upgrade: This low hum of anxiety that exists under modern life.”  To read the full article, click here.