“Upgrade”

If there’s one thing to admire about the sci-fi action body horror comedy, Upgrade, it’s watching action sequences that combine physical humor, slick choreography, and psychological horror. Upgrade is the biggest (technically smallest) surprise of the year.

Quadriplegic mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) gives up on life after his accident and wife’s murder. When an eccentric engineer named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) offers to restore his mobility, Grey has a microchip implanted in his spine called STEM, which restores his mobility and guides him to avenge his wife’s murder. Grey gruesomely (and effortlessly) kills one killer when STEM takes over. That’s when Grey realizes he has an advantage on the gang with mechanically implanted weapons.

Upgrade sounds ridiculous on paper, but even the most absurd premise can be entertaining. Horror writer/director Leigh Whannell (Saw I-III, Insidious 1-3) shows versatility with this mid-budget genre feast. It starts as a hard sci-fi commentary on technophobia, transitions into a bloody revenge movie, and concludes as a psychological body horror movie. In the end, I wasn’t disappointed.

I haven’t been impressed with Marshall-Green’s previous performances, but he shows great physical and emotional range as Grey. Marshall-Green shows off some badass martial arts skills and expressions of horror during his action sequences; his priceless delivery results in some occasional laughs and convincing depiction of fear.

Marshall-Green also sells Grey’s technophobia and fleshes him out. Grey doesn’t want STEM controlling him, but his desire for revenge prompts him to keep STEM. His humanity mixed with technology reminded me of Peter Weller in the original RoboCop.

Whannell’s script and direction draw themes and tone from Verhoeven’s RoboCop, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Between the small budget, dirty urban settings, excessive gore, and cynical commentary on technology and our government, Upgrade should have these filmmakers cheering.

I was only drawn out of Upgrade when Betty Gabriel’s Detective Cortez appears. Every revenge movie has a police office who suspects the hero is a vigilante and tails them. Cortez is that character and offers no depth or originality.

Still, Upgrade was a total blast and given its final act, there’s franchise potential. And I’m okay with that!

Grade: B+

 

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“Annihilation”

We’re only two months into 2018 and I’ve already seen two movies that will most likely be on my best of the year list. The first was last week’s exceptional Black Panther; the second is Alex Garland’s (Ex-Machina) latest sci-fi thriller, Annihilation.

Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is stunned when her missing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) arrives home ill. Shortly after, both taken to a military base outside a mysterious portal called “The Shimmer.” Lena then joins an expedition led by Doctor Ventriss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into The Shimmer to find answers; however, the laws of nature and physics don’t apply in The Shimmer.

Annihilation is a great example of a film with a mediocre trailer that throws you off guard. I expected a standard B-movie filled with more gore than ideas. There are a couple of gory moments reminiscent of The Thing and Alien, but Annihilation has lots to say. This is a provocative mindtrip.

We don’t get all the answers to what The Shimmer is or its purpose, but Garland trusts the audience enough to make their own interpretations. For me, The Shimmer feeds off of self-destruction. We learn Lena, Ventriss, and the other explorers’ back stories as they encounter mutant creatures and witness The Shimmer grow; none of these characters have an optimistic look on life.

Portman and Leigh both deliver grounded, complex performances as Lena and Ventriss. We see that they’re not only terrified by The Shimmer, but also mesmerized. Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok) is also terrific as Radek, a depressed physicist who has a spiritual view of The Shimmer.

Garland shows growth with AnnihilationEx-Machina was just as narratively intriguing and challenging, but Annihilation is far more ambitious and contains more attention-to-detail. Between composer duo Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s transition from a calm acoustic guitar to a menacing synthesizer and the simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish imagery, Garland creates a haunting world filled with beauty and terror.

Annihilation is one of the few sci-fi films of this decade that I’ll call an instant classic. It ranks with The Thing and Alien as one of the best sci-fi/body horror mashups of all time.

Grade: A+

“The Void”

Props to indie filmmakers Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie for designing some horrifying and innovative creatures via Kickstarter in “The Void.” They have a bright future as genre filmmakers, even if this body horror flick doesn’t meet its potential.

Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) takes a drug addict to the closest hospital. His estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) nurses the patient and there’s tension between the couple. They have bigger problems when a knife-wielding cult surrounds them and patients mutate into carnivorous creatures.

I’m a big fan of horror films and the body horror subgenre. Body horror utilizes visuals and psychological dread while showing some wicked gore effects. “The Void” excels in the gore and visuals, but unfortunately, not the dread. I found myself checking how much time was left at least twice.

Kotanski and Gillespie show off their love for John Carpenter and Clive Barker through their use of siren lighting, its siege formula, evil cults, and parasites emerging from peoples’ bodies. They seem too caught up in paying homage to “The Thing” and we never learn about the cult or the monsters.

The second act is riddled with cliches. I’ve seen the cult using a woman to give birth to their demonic god, people brainwashed into killing each other, and half-dead guys dragging axes across the floor. Give me something I haven’t seen already!

The characters aren’t particularly likable, given Daniel is a self-loathing moron, Allison is a thinly written damsel-in-distress, and Nurse Kim (Ellen Wong from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is an incompetent crybaby. It’s 2017, aren’t we done with the poorly written female characters yet?

The silver lining to “The Void” is its ending. Of course, it’s left open for a sequel, which can expand its world and mythology. And hopefully, give us some better-written characters?

Grade: C-