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In 2018 we are so accustomed to technology in our lives that we take it for granted. It’s hard to remember a time when we were terrified of technology. Some 30 years ago, sci-fi movies were absolutely terrifying. The Terminator was going to kill you. Robocop was horrified at his new body. Hardware too showed people with horrifying technological appliances. Leigh Whannell was channeling those movies in his new movie Upgrade.
“You hit the nail on the head,” Whannell said. “Those movies from the ‘80s like Hardware and Terminator where the tech is terrifying were definitely an inspiration.
“The other thing that was inspiring about those movies was that the tech was all tactile and practical. They had to contain it within a box. They couldn’t do anything. They had to tell a story of one robot practically and glue together whatever parts they could.”
In the age of iPhones, Siri and Alexa, Upgrade is a bit of a throwback.
“It’s not just about the charm of nostalgia that makes me want to do that,” Whannell said. “It’s also that I wanted to make something that was very real and touchable like those movies were. As opposed to the ‘mothership hovering over Los Angeles’ version of CG which is fine and has its place. I wanted to do the other sort of sci-fi, the Hardware/Terminator/Robocop version.”
In Upgrade, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is rendered quadriplegic in an assault. Equipped with Eron (Harrison Gilbertson)’s top secret technology STEM (Simon Maiden), Grey can move his body again, or even let STEM take over.
“There is a lot of horror in those sci-fi films from that era,” Whannell said. “Science-fiction I think is a closer cousin to horror than people think. If you look at a film like Alien or Aliens, The Terminator, they’re horror films wrapped in a science-fiction skin. I think the two genres are very complementary towards each other. Not that this is a horror film in any sense, I do love that body horror approach to tech and making the tech itself kind of horrific.”
When STEM takes over, Grey’s body moves separately from his head. In real life, Marshall-Green is still a single actor, so he had to sell that.
“I had a lot of help,” Marshall-Green said. “I had an incredible stunt team. I had Leigh and I had a movement coach help kind of neutralize. We spent months prepping the neck down physically and keeping kind of a placeholder so that I could go home and work on my own and with Leigh about the emotional story happening above. So it really felt like he was a passenger aboard.”
STEM also talks, and Marshall-Green could hear his costar when performing the scenes.
“Leigh was smart enough to get an element of Simon Maiden not on set, but very close,” Marshall-Green said. “We had him in his own booth. I didn’t interact with him and I had an earpiece in the entire time. All of that dialogue, that back and forth, that relationship is real time.”
Other aspects of frightening technology include a self-driving car that causes the whole incident by driving Grey and his wife (Melanie Vallejo) to the bad part of town. And yet, people are lining up to buy self-driving cars in real life.
“In this age of automation, there’s something about cars that I think human beings will be reluctant to give up,” Whannell said. “Because it’s the first time where the tech doing something for you can kill you. You’re sitting in this little metal box and now you’re completely handing the reigns over. I think it’s the first toe in the water of true A.I. where something technological, something machinic is doing the thing for you. If a machine does your dishes, there are no lives at stake. There’s a range of things computers can do in our houses that are kind of frivolous, or at least seen as being frivolous. Whereas a car is a lethal instrument. That’s going to be a big leap in terms of trust from humans to computers.”
It doesn’t seem to be too big of a hurdle. Self-driving cars are being produced and people want to own them.
“I count myself as amongst the people who are excited,” Whannell admitted.
“I live in Los Angeles. I spend far too much time in my car. If I could sit back and read and get things done while my car did the driving, I would love it. I don’t think the trust factor necessarily has anything to do with the eagerness. I think you can be very keen to let the car do the driving and still be very trepidatious about actually pushing that button. It’s one thing to think about it. It’s another thing to push the button and sit back and go okay, I’m going to read the newspaper and trust that this car is going to get you down the freeway.”
Upgrade opens this Friday, June 1 in theaters.