When quadriplegic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) gets a new technology that can make him walk again, STEM (voice of Simon Maiden) seems like a godsend. But STEM has a mind of his own and can completely take over Grey’s body. This enables Grey to fend off bad guys like an efficient martial artist, but when STEM kills, it is graphic and on screen. That’s what happens in Upgrade, the new horror/sci-fi from Leigh Whannell.
“What I was thinking of first of all was I wanted to make something visceral and violent,” writer/director Leigh Whannell said.
“Those ‘80s sci-fi movies would get kind of raw. They kind of went for it. They weren’t yet going for that four-quadrant hit that has to appeal to everybody. You have to sanitize those movies down into a vanilla because everyone likes vanilla. Some of those ‘80s sci-fi films I grew up watching were just like a boot to the throat. In that spirit, I wanted the film to be brutal.”
Grey looks on in horror as his own body is responsible for brutal carnage.
“Storywise, I thought it made sense because I was trying to say that these computers, in their sociopathy and their regard only for ending a problem, they would be very brutal,” Whannell continued. “For Grey to watch himself do something like that and be horrified, he’s not going to be horrified if he just knocks someone out. He will be horrified if he cuts their damn head off. Everything I thought was justified within the story. I’ve read a couple of reviews that were like, ‘Leigh leans on his Saw tendencies.’ I’m like not at all. A, Saw wasn’t that gory, the first one. B, it was all relevant to the story to me. A guy watching with horror as his body does brutal things and the computer thinks its fine. It’s like, ‘But you wanted the problem finished. I finished it. What’s wrong with that?’ So I had to tell that story in a brutal way.”
At first, Whannell thought he should have pushed it further. It turns out, Leigh Whannell holding back is still plenty gory.
“Funnily, you don’t have to do a lot for people to have a strong reaction,” Whannell said. “I remember thinking I didn’t go far enough. I was like some of these fight scenes I really should have gone there and just had cracking fractures. It’s amazing now watching the film people are saying whoa, it’s so violent. So a little goes a long way.”
The graphic kills are also practical makeup effects. Marshall-Green worked with the real thing on set.
“One of the things Leigh did which I think sets the movie apart and is an homage to those [‘80s] movies, they were practical,” Marshall-Green said.
“They were real, beautifully designed and created prosthetic that we took a real chance at. When you hear ‘money shot’ called on set, everybody’s aware this has got to work. It was working on a real brick and mortar level you don’t see anymore in movies.”
Everything you see in Upgrade is the final cut. Whannell said the MPAA never imposed cuts to get an R-rating.
“We knew we’d get an R-rating but there wasn’t really anything that they said, ‘You’re going to have to lose this scene,’” Whannell said. “I’ve had that before obviously. On Saw, there was a couple of things, but this one was okay.”
The fighting itself has a sort of mechanical, inhuman look to it as well.
“I wanted it to look strange,” Whannell said.
“The question I asked myself was: how would a computer fight? Because computers are linear and they take the path of least resistance to solve a problem. Human beings are bouncy and sloppy. A computer takes the path of least resistance and wants to end the problem as quickly as possible. If you don’t have a conscience, you’ll just rip someone’s trachea out just to end that problem instantly. On top of that, we shot the fight scenes in this interesting way where we strapped a phone to Logan under his clothes. The camera locks to the phone so that wherever Logan goes, the camera moves with him and he becomes the center of gravity. It kind of puts you a little off kilter. I hoped that visually that would communicate to the audience the idea of a computer fighting and how it sees the world, even just a little visual cue like that can help.”
Marshall-Green said fighting as STEM had subtle differences to normal screen fighting.
“Most human fighting techniques load punches,” Marshall-Green said. “When you’re in fight choreography, that’s doing many things. That’s showing the audience a physical story of what’s about to happen, what is going to happen. It’s also telling your scene partner, ‘Get ready. You have to sell this punch. You’re going to have to wear it.’ For us, it was just wrong. There’s no need if everything is efficient and perfect. Even how the fists are. There’s no horizontal fists the way you normally see. They’re all just little hammers, little nasty nightsticks coming at you. For me, it was just about getting it absolutely – the economy of movement and keeping him more bamboo so it isn’t brick. He bends like bamboo at times to avoid. Of course, on top of it all, you’ve got a guy who’s watching the whole thing.”
Meredith reviewed Upgrade for Bloody Disgusting out of the World premiere and called it “breathtakingly violent.” It opens in theaters this Friday, June 1.