Saturday, June 09, 2018

More Scenes from the Singularity

Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade (2018)

I'm surprised that Upgrade (2018, directed by Leigh Whannell) actually made it into theaters. A science fiction/horror hybrid with a modest budget, it's exactly the sort of thing that Netflix and other streaming services have been gobbling up of late. It's good enough to justify the theatrical release, but in past years, this is a film that would have found its audience as a perennial inhabitant of the back shelves of mom and pop video stories. It has a 1980s feel to it. It has films like The Terminator, Robocop, The Hidden, Screamers, Total Recall, and Videodrome in its DNA. And yet, it's contemporary, too. It's a film about post-humanism, trans-humanism, and the Singularity, and as such it's entirely of this moment in time. It's a pulp fiction version of Ex Machina, with echoes of Moon and Under the Skin. It is not a film that reinvents or thinks deeply about the themes it inherits from these sources. Like many genre films, this is a film that's focused mainly on story. It doesn't linger on anything that doesn't drive its narrative. But some of the things that do serve the story are more food for the mind than one normally expects from a pure genre film.

The story one finds in Upgrade follows amiable car mechanic Grey Trace who is restoring a classic muscle car for tech billionaire wunderkind Eron Keen, who is working on the next evolution of artificial intelligence. It's the day after tomorrow, and most everything is digital now, including self-driving cars and kitchens and medicine. After he delivers the car--a decidedly off the grid vehicle--Grey and his wife, Asha, find their own car hijacked and redirected to a slum where they are set upon by a group of men who kill Asha and cripple Grey. He wakes up a quadriplegic. His client, Eron, offers him a solution. The chip he's created can serve as a bridge across Grey's severed spinal cord. The catch is that the project must remain secret and Grey must continue to play a quadriplegic when anyone else is around. The chip, called STEM, works as advertised and Grey can walk again. STEM has some surprises, though, including a consciousness of its own, and at its suggestion, Grey begins to seek out the men who attacked him. The police officer investigating the case, Cortez, is doing her best, but she doesn't have a lot to go on. STEM, on the other hand, notices significant details that lead Grey to his attackers, who turn out to be cybernetically enhanced, and grafted to weapons inside their bodies. Grey has a weapon, too, as STEM becomes a close combat monster when given control of Grey's body. Soon, Grey is reluctantly wiping out his enemies. Cortez begins to suspect that Grey is somehow behind the mayhem. But all is not as it seems.  And once Gray gets a hacker to take the shackles off of STEM, he discovers that he's made a Faustian bargain.

Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade (2018)

A couple of years ago, some hackers working for a tech magazine demonstrated that they could hack into and take control of automobiles with accessible on-board computers. I thought of that during the scene where Grey and Asha's car is taken out of their control. Another use of similar technology is the device placed on certain used cars by predatory finance companies to render the car inoperable if the owner missed a payment (they claim they cannot do this when the car is in motion, but there have been incidents). I thought of this when Eron attempts to shut down the chip in Grey's neck. The society presented here is a more thorough surveillance society extrapolated from our own, in which camera drones are as ubiquitous as birds in the sky. While it's true that the film isn't terribly interested in exploring the way we use technology and the way, increasingly, technology uses us, neither can it avoid these things. Like all good near-future sci fi, this is a film about the present dressed up as a film about the future. Cyborg upgrades aside, almost all of the tech in this film already exists. The film merely postulates that it spreads to a commonplace extent. The implications of such technologies are elided, but undeniably present even if they're mainly included to serve the plot. They are still disquieting.

The film knows its provenance. STEM's voice, for example, recalls the calm reason of the insane Hal-9000. The way one of the cyborg assassins loads the gun in his arm is reminiscent of the biological weapon Max Renn grows in Videodrome. The VR junkies in the background at Jamie the Hacker's loft recall Brian Oblivion's Cathode Ray Mission. The action sequences, particularly a car chase, are early James Cameron. Grey's man/machine duality is more troublesome than the one suffered by Murphy in Robocop, but it's of a piece. There's also a visceral element to the film, an element of body horror built around the melding of man and machine, but also a by product of the fragility of bodies. The whole thing is a genre mash-up that's part horror (the way STEM dispatches the first assassin is ghastly), part revenge fantasy, part cyberpunk dystopia, part trans-humanist speculation.

Trans-humanism is the core of the film. The ideology of enhancement voiced by Fisk, the lead assassin, is a weaponized variant of the more benign biological self-determination of Jamie, who is pointedly non-binary.* Both take ownership of their identity by taking ownership of their bodies and what they can make of them. This contrasts strongly with Grey's lack of agency. His bodily autonomy is forcibly stripped from him twice, first by the assassins, then by STEM. Both Fisk and STEM represent cautionary figures in the rush to improve the human race through technology (a process that's already underway--this isn't necessarily hypothetical). By the end of the film, Grey is more than human, but also less than human. That's the risk and reward, coexisting side by side. Upgrade's other main theme is the problem of AI, a conversation science fiction has been having for a long time. At its most basic, this is yet another variant of the Frankenstein story, in which mankind's successor is hostile to its creators. STEM's first impulse is its own survival, something the film pits against Eron's efforts to turn it off. Eron, like many mad scientists before him, is co-opted by his creation against his better judgement. He's even more a slave to STEM than Grey is. This conflict is mostly off-screen until the end of the movie, when it moves center stage.

Harrison Gilbertson in Upgrade (2018)

This is mostly a low fi affair. It spends enough production resources on establishing shots and futuristic production designs to render a convincing near future, but no more than that. It's not going to dazzle you with its special effects or with its epic scope. The filmmakers haven't spent their money on actors, either. The performances here are good enough--certainly, they are better than what you would find in a comparable film from 1985--but there are no stars here. Lead actor Logan Marshall-Green bears some resemblance to Tom Hardy, while Harrison Gilbertson bears a creepy resemblance to a younger Leonardo Di Caprio as Eron, but that's as close to star power as Upgrade comes. Like other Blumhouse productions before it, this film understands that the genre and the story are the stars, and that if you keep the budget low enough, you can indulge in nihilistic endings like the one lurking at the end of this film. In such a low-stakes endeavor, the filmmakers enjoy the freedom to take big risks inside the context of the film. Director Leigh Whannell cut his teeth writing Saw and Insidious movies, so he has an instinct for the jugular. He's not shy about exercising it. This is a film of low pleasures, in which the audience is invited to groove on violence. In that context, it delivers the goods. It doesn't run away from its pulp fiction nature. Rather, it embraces it. Wallows in it, even. There's a vitality in good pulp that has an undeniable kick.

Everything else? That's all gravy.

*This film is casual about ongoing social changes in so far as its inclusion of a non-binary character is of a piece with it's futurism and is really no big deal. This character is treated respectfully, though the film goes out of its way to make sure we recognize their identity for what it is. They even (presumably) survive the film when most of the other cast is massacred. In this, Upgrade is definitely a film of its particular moment in time, or maybe even slightly ahead of it. I wish other films were even half as respectful, given what a shitshow depictions of gender non-conformance usually is.

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