By Dr. Craig D. Reid
Directed by Leigh Whannell, Upgrade is a futuristic, revenge-filled, dystopian, sci-fi horror thriller that makes a great argument for today’s society to steer away from Tesla robo-cars…computer hacking is nothing compared to the bloody human hacking that results when technology goes more than awry.
When old school, born to be a ramblin’ man mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who loves working on classic muscle cars and listening to records on vinyl, and his ultra state-of-the-art technology loving wife are movin’ on down the highway in their self-driving car, the car goes haywire and crashes into the territory of vicious hooligans. Moments later, Trace watches his wife being shot to death as the thugs laugh in his face and leave him a quadriplegic.
Yet with the help of a billionaire AI entrepreneur, Trace regains mobility after an implanted computer chip named STEM, which looks like the Nanobug robot created by HEXBUG Toys, is inserted into his body. Now single-mindedly bent on wreaking revenge on those who killed his wife, Trace and STEM form a symbiotic relationship where STEM can offer advice and observations, and upon request, can take control of Trace’s body to execute lightning-fast, ultra-violent martial arts skills.
Actually, I don’t see what’s the big deal with AI, as a kid back in England, my teachers used to say that my bad grades were due to my artificial intelligence. So what’s this I hear about a symbiotic relationship?
During the 1600s, English Navy crewmembers would be ordered to flog each other as punishment for breaking rules. However, when crew members agreed to deliver light whip lashes (scratches on the back) based upon they’d receive similar light lashes on their back if the tables were turned, it gave birth to the adage, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Little did they know that they had laid down the foundation for the ecological principles of symbiosis, which describes when two or more different organisms have a relationship their interactions usually benefits both organisms. The four main symbiotic types are: mutualism (both benefit), commensalism (one benefits, the other isn’t helped or hurt); parasitism (one benefits the other suffers); and competition (predator-prey interactions). Upgrade introduces a new type of symbiosis where the line between back scratching is so blurred, that our futures are either bleak or amazing.
Thus the fun and crux of the film is how the relationship between Trace and STEM evolves, where we’re not quite sure of this symbiotic relationship is mutualism, commensalism or parasitism. Yet what we do know is that when fight mode is on, Trace has no control of his blood letting as STEM can sometimes get stuck in survival mode and when that happens, it makes Upgrade more of a hoot to watch.
The disadvantage that most film critics have when it comes to covering martial arts films or movies that feature martial arts stylized action is they often haven’t seen many martial arts films, a movie genre that began in China in 1903. Since then, globally, tens of thousands of martial arts films have been cumulatively made in over 100 different countries. So it’s very common when a film like Upgrade hits the theaters that many reviewers, at all levels of expertise, tout the action by paraphrasing Monty Python’s Flying Circus mantra, “And now for something completely different.” Though their observations can be viewed as rather incorrect, under the hypnosis of awe, support and everlasting enthusiasm for cinema in general, that is never a negative thing.
However, as technology and camera equipment evolves, this is when something old and borrowed can be manipulated into something new and creative, which is more about camera choreography and editing than fight choreography and skillful actors/stuntmen.
Upgrade is part 2001 Space Odyssey (1968), The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), Venom in Spider Man 3 (2007) and has a whole lotta’ of Death Wish (1974) goin’ on. The film also contains a unique influential mix of The Matrix (1999) and John Wick (2014), which both basically use Hong Kong stylized martial arts action. Thus it’s no wonder that Upgrade has unwittingly borrowed from a ton of old Chinese kung fu films that includes the likes of Legendary Weapons of China (1982; LWOC) and Jackie Chan’s kung fu choreography style that he first created in his uncommonly spoken about 1978 production Dragon Fist (released after Drunken Master in 1979).
In Shaolin Wooden Men (1976), by combining Tommy Lee’s kung fu and Chan’s opera background, Chan began forging a new fighting look for himself. The first thing I learned about choreography while working in kung fu movies in Taiwan was to focus on the yells of the fighters as a way to remember the choreography and develop timing. The faster the fighters yelled, the faster I could deliver the techniques.
I also learned that bobbing the body up and down helped fighters, especially during one-on-one fights, to develop a rhythm. As fighters bobbed in unison, with each bob comes an offensive or defensive technique (punch, kick, roll, duck, parry, etc.).
After Chan perfected these two choreography skills (and others), by seamlessly breaking the rhythms, he could subtly affect the fight’s emotion. He also began to end each hand and arm movement with a snap or pop, and freeze the arm or hand in place for a split second before doing the next movement. By doing this he could mimic the look of power and speed, and the audience could clearly see and feel the intention of each technique.
In Dragon Fist, by combining all of the above methods the final important piece of his new choreography style was that when Chan moved from stance to stance using arm and hand skills, the back must remain straight, which gave the actors a somewhat stilted, mechanical look where the idea was to have correct postural delivery of each skill. When filmed at 22 fps the slight pauses between each skill was ironed out so the movement looked precise yet quick.
Many Shaw Brothers wuxia films that featured Muo Shan characters, would feature fights where an actor fought like he was possessed by a ghost or in the case of LWOC, Alexander Fu Shen fights while under a voodoo doll spell-like trance with a stiff armed and body appearance that created a stilted mechanical look.
In Upgrade, when Trace is under the spell of STEM, his back and upper torso becomes stiff and robotic, and remains so while mechanically doing punches, blocks and or evasive body maneuvers. What made Upgrade fights unique was the way that the body swayed during each shot.
Whannel enthusiastically explained, “I wrote in the script, ‘Note: when Grey fights, it’s very strange and stilted.’ When we got in to pre-production, I sat down with the stunt team and the DP (Stefan Duscio) and said, ‘How are we going to depict ‘strange and stilted?’ When you make films with fight scenes, there’s a long tradition of that going back to early movies. How are we going to add to that conversation? I was keen to do something different, but the trick is, we didn’t have a lot of money. With time and money you can do Matrix, which is one of the more recent movies that really added something to the fight scene conversation. The stunt team killed itself trying to work out a very clipped, robotic style of fighting.
“Then at the 11th hour, Stefan said, ‘I did this music video last year where we actually locked the camera onto the actor.’ It’s something like where a rig is attached to the actor and we did remote version of that by taking an iPhone and strapping it under the actor’s clothes, and the camera lens locks to the phone. So wherever the phone moves, it sits in a housing like motion control, and the Steadicam operator would hold this camera housing, and the camera would sit in a swivel, and wherever Logan moved, it would go. It’s all in-camera; it’s not done in post.”
Again the beauty of technology is that it can be tricky to denote from the picture if those fights were shot at 18 fps or the film was sped up digitally in post. Either way, it’s the old kung fu fight Chan trick where in American martial arts fights they’re carefully doing the moves at either a slow or natural pace, then the edit is sped up to eliminate the stuttered and unassured technique delivery made by the actors and/or stuntmen.