You Need To See This Movie: ‘Upgrade’
Whannell's "true" directorial debut passes with flying colors.
Leigh Whannell and James Wan are names that have frequently been associated in the horror genre for over a decade, getting their big break with Saw in 2004. Since then, the duo has collaborated on multiple projects and films, like Insidious, that spawn a franchise in which Whannell has had a large part in every installment. Recently, the team has gone its separate ways with Wan working on the upcoming Aquaman, and Whannell again trying his hand at directing with the recently released Upgrade (2018).
Whannell’s second directorial attempt (his first technically being Insidious: Chapter 3) has opened to public evaluation as Whannell makes his first official debut as he writes and directs an original story for the first time. Whannell is a modern icon in the horror genre, and his origins are as ambitious as the projects he takes on. He began in an Australian film school where he met James Wan and accidentally stumbled into a franchise.
Whannell & Wan
Whannell’s film career started in Melbourne, Australia where he attended the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. While attending the university, Whannell was cast on a local teen talk show titled Recovery (1996) as the film guy. This was his first gig in front of a camera, and the spark did not die down; soon after Leigh was hosting the show where he was interviewing guests, such as Tim Burton and Russel Crowe. After his short stint in television hosting, he continued his search for acting roles, landing a few small parts here and there (including the Matrix Reloaded ((2003)). Struggling with breaking into a leading role, Whannell decided to dedicate himself to his own projects. Paired with fellow RMIT graduate, James Wan, the two worked to finance their own film. Writing and starring in a short film titled Saw, Whannell had no idea he was about to trailblaze the next generation of filmmaking.
The duo sought to shop their low budget/ self-funded short, using Whannell’s savings of $7000, where they headed to LA in a quest for a buyer. Soon, the buzz around the short picked up and paired with a Whannell script for a feature; the rest is history as the franchise spawned into eight iterations and two video games. Whannell’s clever use of limited storytelling paired with a distinct eye for the violent helped spawn an iconic horror film with the original Saw. While Whannell only wrote the first three and acted in the original, the impact he had on the franchise is that of the creator— trusting himself and Wan— the duo was able to do the impossible, and break into Hollywood from the outside.
After gaining the notoriety provided by the Saw franchise, Whannell and Wan looked for their next project, sticking with their horror roots. Four years after Whannell’s final Saw screenplay, Insidious (2010) was born and gave him a chance to both write, direct, and act in his own franchise. The original Insidious sported a 1.5 million dollar budget, but grossed over $100 million, earning Whannell & Wan the reputation of getting viewers in the seats. The series started with a somewhat unknown entity as we followed a family that is dealing with “The Further,” a place between life and death.
Whannell made his acting presence known as “Specs,” one half of a duo of ghost hunters that provide the comic relief. Whannell plays the role perfectly, as he is the one that wrote it, and eventually, the series takes a longer look at the team of him and Elise. The series saw four additions, all written by Whannell, and he saw his first attempt at directing with Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015). The film opened to lukewarm praise as viewers grew tired of the franchise, but it gave Whannell the opportunity to sharpen his skills before his first true directorial debut, Upgrade (2018). Now with an established relationship with Jason Blum, one of Hollywood’s true moguls, Whannell used every resource at his disposal to ensure that he did not spoil his directorial debut.
An Upgrade of a Directorial Debut
Upgrade is a film unlike anything Whannell had worked on up to this point, which is a mix of horror, sci-fi and old school Kung Fu films that gives a unique experience. Unlike his original debut, Whannell felt that he really got to take the reigns on the project and was working with a world that he could control; not one that was already established by Wan. The result is a violent joy ride that some have compared to the likes of cult classics, like Robocop (1987) and The Crow (1994), and Whannell seems to be aware of the film’s roots in old school sci-fi. The plot follows Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green), an old fashioned worker, who works with his hands on muscle cars for clients in the not too distant future. On the way back from a job, his wife is murdered, and he is left a quadriplegic, but not for long.
Thanks to a small computer AI named STEM, Grey is granted his life back, but he soon finds out the being that is bridging the gap between his brain and body may have a mind of its own. The film sticks to the Blumhouse model, a frequent collaborator of Whannell’s, in that it maintains a micro-budget and features on-location filming. Typically Blumhouse micro-budget projects tend to lean horror, so to see the model work in other genre’s (specifically something as demanding as sci-fi) is a sign of what’s to come from the company. Upgrade uses practical effects very well, donning a Grindhouse style of violence that seems to be on the rise in action films. The questions posed by Whannell also resonate with its viewer as they seem to be coming sooner rather than later. Self-driving cars, AI that has a mind of its own, and cyborg mutated humans… all of which are themes and questions that have been present in sci-fi from the beginning, but something about the world we live in now makes them seem a bit more immediate.
Upgrade has opened to critical praise and for good reason because the expectation to this point was that Whannell may be better off sticking with James Wan, but that is no longer the case. The majority of Whannell’s horror writing ventures were based in the realm of the supernatural, and with Upgrade the viewer can almost see his true imagination let loose. The comedy, of course with Whannell, was apparent and Marshall-Green steals the show as a sarcastic, but likeable revenge seeker. The violence is paced well between the witty banter, the protagonist and the AI stuck in his head, but this use of humor is not something that is new for Whannell as he seeks to keep the viewer laughing as well as scared.
The viewer does not know whether to cringe or laugh in Upgrade as we see our protagonist unwillingly sever heads and fight Kung Fu style battles vs other AI led criminals, and it does not let up. Whannell touches on his use of humor in his horror screenplays, addressing that it may not be for everyone:
“I don’t think humor is something to be afraid of. You just have to ask yourself ‘Is this the movie to do it?’”
Whannell obviously knows his audience and the roots in which Sci-Fi revenge stories like this are grounded in. The results is a truly forceful directorial debut, and a definite Upgrade over his first.