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Front Page - Friday, June 8, 2018

Critic's Corner: Who needs CGI? ‘Upgrade’ has a good tale to spin

Feeling stuffed and bloated after a month of feasting on big-budget blockbusters, I was in the mood for something light. “Upgrade,” a sci-fi action pic from BH Tilt, hit the spot.

BH Tilt is a division of horror factory Blumhouse Productions, which focuses on low-budget genre pictures designed to make a small splash in theaters as a way of creating awareness for the video-on-demand market.

If “Upgrade” is representative of what BH Tilt can do with a small budget, then I like where the studio is going with the concept. The film is fun, creative, well made and it looks and sounds good enough to warrant seeing in a theater.

“Upgrade” is set in the near future, when driverless cars are taking over the roads and drones fill the sky like flocks of birds. Everything is connected, and the authorities and can see and record whatever people do. Think of it as a worse-case-scenario extension of our present fears about technology invading our privacy.

Grey Trace won’t have any of that. A stay-at-home mechanic, he prefers muscle cars to the driverless kind and likes getting his hands dirty under the hoods of the vehicles he restores.

Judging from his wife, who works for a tech company, Grey also likes women who are as far out of his league as the east is from the west.

One night, Grey convinces his wife to accompany him as he returns a car to a rich, reclusive client. His customer is Eron Keen, a tech innovator who heads a rival of the company for which Asha works.

On the way home, Asha’s driverless car veers off course and crashes in a bad part of town. There, a group of thugs shoot Asha and Grey, killing her and paralyzing him from the neck down.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Keen appears and offers to restore Grey’s ability to walk using an innovative computer chip implant called STEM. Although initially reluctant, he agrees.

STEM does more than get Grey back on his feet. A super-smart chip that can talk by sending soundwaves to Grey’s eardrums, STEM begins to walk its host through an investigation into the murder of his wife.

When one of the thugs comes home while Grey is searching the man’s house for clues, Grey discovers that STEM can also help him win a fistfight.

These fight scenes are the selling point of “Upgrade.” Once STEM has taken control of Grey, writer and director Leigh Whannell uses a unique method of filming the actor, Logan Marshall-Green, that puts him in the center of the action while everything appears to move around him.

The visual effect is startling at first and then thrilling to watch. Whannell combines this camera trickery with eye-catching stunts and brutal, visceral kills, turning “Upgrade” into a crowd pleaser.

Big budget films like “The Avengers” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” captivate audiences with expensive CGI, but I’ll take a filmmaker with a low budget and a clever idea over reams of computer animation any day.

There are just two problems with these fight scenes: they’re over almost as soon as they begin, and there aren’t enough of them. That leaves the bulk of the film – and most of my popcorn – to the writing.

Fortunately, Whannell’s script is a solid piece of work. He spends just the right amount of time establishing the rules of his world and then sticks to them for the duration of the film. Also, the way in which STEM gradually goes from serving as a useful tool to taking complete control of Grey is well done.

There’s a strong logic behind the script and, if you look hard enough, Whannell even has a few things to say about the dangers of giving technology too much control over our lives. It’s nothing profound but it adds a little substance to the film.

Unfortunately, Keen’s ability to remotely shut down STEM creates a massive, gaping plot hole. Once I caught on to this hiccup, several aspects of the story unraveled into a pile of loose threads.

But I was past caring. “Upgrade” has too many plusses to let one gigantic minus spoil the party.

One of the film’s biggest plusses is Marshall-Green. Not only is he believable as Grey goes through a range of extreme and subdued emotions, he nails the physical aspect of the role.

In the beginning, when Grey gives STEM permission to act, his movements become rigid and mechanical. But Whannell must have wanted Grey’s humanity to be evident until STEM completely takes over its host, so in the beginning, Grey maintains control of his facial expressions even as STEM is moving his body.

This allows viewers to see Grey’s reaction to the violent things his arms and legs are doing. During the first fight scene, I laughed out loud as Grey pleaded with his victim to stay down even as STEM was visibly going in for the kill.

“Upgrade” is a reminder that there’s still fresh ground to till in the science fiction genre. The story doesn’t break any barriers but the filmmaking is energetic and creative, making “Upgrade” a cheap but wild and memorable ride. I just wish Whannell had closed that gargantuan plot hole.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing what BH Tilt does next.