Movie Review: Upgrade (2018)

Movie Review: Upgrade (2018)

An uneven but interesting sci-fi thriller that will make you scared of your Alexa.


Finally, a movie that dares to ask the question "What if Siri was evil?". Leigh Whannell, noted alum of the "Saw" and "Insidious" franchises, takes this question seriously, skewering humanity's increasing reliance on artificial intelligence with the new sci-fi thriller "Upgrade". The film struggles with its cumbersome revenge plot, but there are plenty of interesting questions raised along the way. You may even think twice about talking to your Alexa after this.

The film takes place in the not-too-distant future, where our society has become increasingly mechanized and automated. Self-driving cars fill the highways, tabletops have touchscreen capabilities, and houses operate with AI systems. Even the Hollywood gold standard for impractical but flashy futuristic technology, the holographic computer display, makes an appearance. Humble mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, looking distractingly like a knockoff Tom Hardy) rejects the aid of computers. He is a man who works with his hands, repairing and restoring old cars (while listening to vinyl records, naturally) for rich clients. Grey and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), deliver a refurbished muscle car to the subterranean home of the billionaire tech genius, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). The creepy Elon Musk wannabe shows the couple his latest invention, a miraculous piece of nanotechnology known as "Stem", which can supposedly control and connect to any electronic device.

On their way home, the couple's self-driving car makes an unexpected detour into a seedy area of town. The car promptly crashes, leaving Grey and his wife at the mercy of a gang of villains. The criminals shoot Asha and Grey, leaving her dead and our protagonist quadriplegic. Enter Eron, who offers Trace a chance to walk again with the aid of Stem. One nondisclosure agreement and a top-secret surgery later, and not-Tom-Hardy is up and mobile once again. Stem is implanted into Grey's spinal cord, connecting into his nervous system and communicating with him through his eardrums. The two maintain a tenuous rapport, with Trace wary of his new A.I. companion (and as if the Tom Hardy resemblance wasn't enough, the Stem/Trace banter bears a strange resemblance to Hardy's interactions with his alien symbiote in the "Venom" trailer). Trace, now armed with the power of technology, decides to track down his attackers. The police officers of the future are not much help, even with their dystopian fleet of patrol drones monitoring, so vigilante justice is the only logical route for Grey and his microchip pal.

Trace proceeds to track down and, much to his chagrin, kill the people responsible for his wife's death. You see, Stem has the ability to override Grey's motor functions if granted permission. Our protagonist is better at fixing cars than fighting cyborg military veterans, so he must give himself over to the A.I.'s control in order to survive. These fight scenes are some of the stronger points of the movie, with the camera following Grey around with mechanical motion-controlled precision as Stem pilots his body. His unwillingness to engage in the violence that his body commits on autopilot is perversely funny, like some weird offspring of "John Wick" and "Idle Hands". Both the police and Eron catch on to Trace's revenge scheme, with the police wanting to apprehend the supposedly quadriplegic killer, and Eron wanting to prevent his experimental technology from being linked to murders. The race is on as Grey must outwit his pursuers and keep Stem from overstepping its control of his body.

There are some truly interesting, if not unsubtle, themes at play in "Upgrade". As technology continues its endless march of progress, it is important to consider how much control we give computer systems over our lives. Everything in this movie's vision of the future is automated or computerized in some way. Not even analog technology can save the day. In the same year that we get the mostly pro-VR "Ready Player One", "Upgrade" gives us imagery of VR addicts in a derelict building reminiscent of an opium den. It may be lunkheaded, but the messages are sufficiently alarming.

The major flaw with "Upgrade", coincidentally is with its universe. The story Leigh Whannell decides to tell is just not as interesting as the various things hinted at in this sci-fi setting. Grey's revenge plot gets repetitive around the time he offs the second bad guy and decreases in excitement as it becomes increasingly obvious the movie is headed for a dumb villain reveal (which, alas, it is). I was much more interested in the strange cyberpunk underworld that exists just below the cold, sleek surface of the movie's futuristic technology. Whannell is more concerned with cheap thrills, and that is totally fine. I just wish the movie had focused more on the stuff in the periphery.

Rating: 5/10

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A Letter To My Dancers

Everything your dance teacher wants you to know.

When anyone (especially a child) chooses to invest their time, talent, and passion into dancing, it's nothing to take lightly. These kids spend more time with me at the studio than they do at home with their parents. Before long, they're my "kids," too. When I only have an hour to lead a warm-up, teach choreography, and rehearse a number, there isn't much time to express the thoughts and feelings I'd necessarily like to. Being a dance teacher is the most spectacular and rewarding job - and I want my students to know that. Between the great rehearsals and the frustrating ones, the competitions and recitals, and the endless hours we spend together each week, there are just a few reminders I need to share with them.

Dear Dancers,

Please love yourself and love what you do with every ounce of your being. Do it with so much passion that your heart wants to burst. Dance is the most special thing; it's something we are privileged and lucky to have, so don't take it for granted.

Please believe in yourself. You are worthy. You are talented. You are strong and capable of everything you set your mind to. Strive to be the best version of yourself every day, not the reflection of the girl next to you. Dance like you. Move like you. Experiment and find what makes you, you. Be an individual. Trust me when I say I don't want 20 carbon-copied robots. I want you.

Trust that I have your best interest in mind. Sometimes my choices and decisions won't make sense, you might be confused, hurt or frustrated, but keep the faith that I'm on your side. I don't want to see you fail, and I'll do everything in my power to help you find the success you're looking for.

I want you to succeed, but for me to do that, you need to tell me what you need. Do you need the counts again? Do you need me to review the transition to floor one more time? If you understand, tell me. If you don't, tell me that, too. Be vocal, be present, be smart, and be prepared. Practice on the sides. Pay attention to the small details. Ask questions. Don't be late, and definitely don't forget your choreography. Take responsibility for your responsibilities and lead by example. Do you have any remote idea how many children look up to you? Who want to be just like you someday? Dance just like you? Kids watch, listen, and copy. Make sure the behaviors you're teaching them are behaviors you're proud of.

Make memories with your dance family while you still can. Cherish every 9 a.m. Saturday morning rehearsal, every competition you attend, every fundraising event, and every team sleepover. It'll be gone so fast. You're going to miss these days. Please, enjoy them.

Don't compare yourself to other dancers. You are you, and nobody can do "you" better than yourself. Don't wish away your abilities by secretly wishing you had Suzie's feet, Betsy's port de bras, or Charlie's center. The only thing you need to worry about is being a better version of yourself than you were the day before. You are your only competition, so don't be too hard on yourself. Be kind to your mind and body. You work day in and day out to perfect your craft and artistry. You work to mold and create yourself. You'll be rewarded with time if you keep fighting and don't give up. Usually when you want to throw in the towel, it's after you don't get the part you wanted or you don't make the team you hoped to. What you need to understand is the answer isn't "No," the answer is "Not yet." You know you're trying and working hard, and those efforts don't go unnoticed -- even if it seems they are.

Please, remember that it's not going to always be fair. You're going to be let down, and you're going to feel disappointed from time to time. You're not always going to win the trophy. You're not always going to get the featured solo part, and not everyone can be the front row and center dancer. This doesn't mean you're "bad" and this doesn't mean you're not "meant" to dance either.

Quite frankly, it's just how it works, you guys. It doesn't mean I don't like you, and it doesn't mean the dancer who does have the solo is my favorite. The dancer just might be more talented. Yeah, I said it. They might have better lines, straighter knees, or stronger stage presence, and that is entirely okay. You're going to run into this for the rest of your adult life. Someone is going to be smarter, more qualified, more desirable for a particular job or position. So instead of despising and resenting these dancers (and especially me), try to learn from them instead. You'll learn more from each other than you could imagine. But if you take away one thing from this, know that you are still worthy of my best training, my best analogies, my best choreography -- whether you are featured, in the third row, or even off-stage for the turn section.

As your teacher, it's my job to teach. Learning (and learning correctly) requires close attention to detail, incredible focus, and a plethora of corrections on my part. Yes, I will go out of my way to critique you, and I will continually tell you what needs fixing until it's fixed. I might have to tell you over and over and over again. And you know, I might even get frustrated with you once in awhile because of it, but here's what you need to understand: This doesn't make me mean or a bad teacher. This doesn't mean I hate you. What it does mean is that I see potential in you and I want to help. I just have to ask, do you see what I see in you? Do you see the talent and abilities I see?

Corrections are good. Success is an incredibly long and never ending process that takes time, but the corrections I give you are helping you get one step closer. So next time you catch yourself getting upset about receiving the same critique week after week or you want to complain about how mean I am, please remember that my intent is not malicious. I'm doing my job.

It's also my job to instill perseverance, dedication, discipline, trust, humility, confidence, creativity, bravery, and strong work ethic into you. I want to push your limits. Test you. Challenge you. I want to mold you into the person you want to be. Even though you probably don't even know who that person is, I do.

There are so many possibilities, opportunities, and challenges that are out there once you enter the world of adulthood. The dance world is so much bigger than your studio, competition routines, and conventions. At the end of the day, no one remembers or cares (especially your future employers) if you won a quadruple diamond platinum plus on your lyrical solo in 2016. They don't care about your first place overall at Showbiz. They don't care if you're Teen Miss Winner of the World. They don't care. What people do care about is your character, your heart, and how you made them feel.

Dancers, I will always support you. Whether you want to pursue a professional dance career in Los Angeles or New York City, in a company overseas, on your college dance team, I will support you. Whether you want to teach dance or choreograph locally in town, I will support you. Whether you don't want to dance at all and maybe be an engineer or a cosmetologist, I will support you. I will always fuel your dreams, goals, and desires, no matter where they'll take you.

I love you and I'm proud of you.


Your Dance Teacher

Cover Image Credit: Pixabay

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