Upgrade, 2018
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Credit: OTL Releasing

Upgrade's Leigh Whannell on the most efficient ways to kill and shaping the future of horror

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Jan 25, 2021, 3:50 PM EST (Updated)

Leigh Whannell knows how a man whose body being controlled by a super-advanced artificial intelligence would move.

"I figure the computer wouldn't move like a robot dancer," Whannell told SYFY WIRE during a Chicago press stop for his new film Upgrade, in which Logan Marshall-Green stars as a man who encounters unexpected consequences when he's implanted with a cutting-edge microchip in an attempt to undo his paralysis. "Initially, Logan would email me these videos of him in his backyard and he would be moving and I would say, 'less robotic, less robot dance-y, more fluid.' So when he came out to Australia, he was working with this dance coordinator, who would try to give him that fluidity that dancers have where they're able to move with a lot more core strength and grace."

The extra work pays off in Upgrade's fight scenes, which find Marshall-Green moving with the uncanny precision of a machine that's instantaneously considered every possible move and settled on the most effective — and often most devastating — way to take down an opponent. What's a mere human to do up when pitted a creation designed to be better than human?

That's the subtext that runs beneath the whole film, which is set in the near future — possibly quite near — filled with smart homes, self-driving cars, and police drones, with no room for people whose technical acumen haven't kept up with the times. These include Marshall-Green's protagonist Grey Trace, who spends his days fixing up old cars for a dwindling clientele of connoisseurs.

"To me, Grey is a metaphor for a part of humanity that thinks, 'Oh, I'm irrelevant now,'" Whannell explains. "The manufacturing base of this country is sort of collectively being phased out, not necessarily entirely due to tech, but robotics and automation. The way manufacturing is going, it's not going to go back towards human beings on an assembly line. It's only going forward."

In the film, the battle between humanity and machines includes the body itself, though Whannell suggests that technophobia took a backseat to storytelling in creating Upgrade.

"I had this image of a quadriplegic being controlled from the neck down," he says, "somebody's paralysis being cured by a computer. And then what if that computer became sentient and said, 'Well, I'm in control of everything from the neck down.' And you know you're onto something good if you can't stop obsessing about it, if the idea keeps you awake at night. I couldn't stop thinking about two people fighting for control of the same body. It wasn't like I was reading an article about a particular piece of tech and thought, 'Well this will be interesting.' It was this image. And then I reverse-engineered it."

Whannell has been such an influential creative force in genre filmmaking this century it's sometimes easy to forget that he's still pretty new to directing. It probably helps that Whannell has accumulated a lot of experience with other aspects of filmmaking, working as both an actor and a writer, stepping into the latter role most frequently for films directed by James Wan, whom he met while both were in film school in Australia. Together, they helped change the direction of horror films twice, first with the 2004 film Saw with its emphasis on gore and mental and physical distress then again with 2011's Insidious, a spare supernatural tale that stripped away some of Saw's baroque grotesqueries.

While Wan has spent the past few years making big-budget spectacles like Furious 7 and the forthcoming Aquaman, Whannell seems happy working on a more limited scale and continuing a relationship with the low-budget genre specialists at Blumhouse Productions that began with the Insidious series. Upgrade is only his second time behind the camera, and he remains enthusiastic about his new role.

"In chatting to directors over the years, including James Wan, they always tell you the war stories. No one ever says, 'Oh, I had a great time on that film,'" Whannell says. "It's always this went wrong, that went wrong. So I went into directing thinking it was going to be a sledgehammer to the face every day. And what I realized during the process is, as stressful and as difficult as it is, it's a fun job."

After directing the third Insidious film — Insidious: Chapter 3 — he even felt comfortable enough to make the move from horror to science fiction. "I was more concerned with fight scenes and car chases — those action elements are so mechanical, you tend to think that there is a method to it," Whannell says. "And I found out that fight scenes and car chases are made just like anything else: you figure out in your mind what you think is going to look good, try to get as much of it as you can. And then the real making of those scenes in the edit room."

Not that he's unaware that different genres bring with them different expectations. "Horror film fans are pretty starved for quality," Whannell says. "If you do something thoughtful or if you make something good, they're so thankful for it. There's a good community around horror. Sci-fi takes a step back a little and fans have more great films to choose from, so they're more discerning."

Whether they'll embrace Upgrade's mix of bone-crunching action and a torn-from-tomorrow's headlines about where technology is taking us remains to be seen. But if they don't, it won't be because Whannell didn't give enough thought to how a computer would throw a punch.