‘Upgrade’ and ‘Perfect’ offer competing visions of an augmented future

Throughout the week, we’ll be offering up shorter takes on some of the films we see at this year’s SXSW in lieu of a larger wrap-up article at the end of the festival. Today, we’re pairing two sci-fi films roughly about the same concept: Self-improvement via technology, and how that corrupts.

One of the most interesting things about attending a film festival is the way that movies interact and mesh together in ways you sometimes don’t expect. Like, for instance, I accidentally did an ASL double feature with A Quiet Place and Unfriended: Dark Web on the first night of the festival, and it was kind of cool to see how two different horror films used that method of communication. Other times, you’ll get something as obvious as the pairing of Perfect and Upgrade, films both about futuristic body augmentation that use their shared thematic premise to vastly different ends, and only the latter is truly successful at setting out what it’s trying to do, partially because it’s just content with being what it is.

No one could claim that Perfect director Eddie Alcazar isn’t a talented visual stylist, and one could see why an image-conscious filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh would produce and sponsor a film like this (his above-the-title “presents” credit makes it feel more like an endorsement than anything else). Indeed, there are a ton of arresting images in this film, most of which would cause you to double-take if you saw them playing on MTV some 20 years ago. It’s just that when that style is mainlined exclusively, without a story or characters or anything backing it up, the film becomes overwhelmingly exhausting and pointless. Ostensibly a story about a young, handsome psychopath (Garrett Wareing) sent to a cool rehab and body augmentation center after murdering his girlfriend in an act of bloody chaos, Perfect takes an interesting concept, pairs it with gorgeous design and cinematography, and just lets it drown in its own self-satisfaction.

I mean, seriously, this is a film in which an ash-covered Wareing eats a fucking baby during a black-and-white dream sequence meant to act as a visualization of his animal self and it can’t even elicit anything more than a shrug from the audience. I’m not even kidding. Perfect is the kind of truly vacuous stoner sci-fi horseshit that confuses viewers into thinking something actually great like Annihilation is of a similar mind, full of loud sounds and equally thunderous imagery, designed to shock and compel and conceal the big fat gaping hole in the center of its chest. Characters narrate empty platitudes over shots of beautiful people looking sad and empty, as if former American Apparel models were rounded up and forced to go to AA together, and it’s lit like a perfume commercial. If only it were as short as one: it might be the longest 85 minute movie that I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting through, and I probably would have run out of the theater had Flying Lotus not done the score (at his most Tangerine Dream here) and had the director and cast not been in attendance.

Leigh Whannell, on the other hand, has a steady hand over Upgrade, which should be considered his debut feature, given that it feels like one (even though he’d already hit the market with Insidious 3 and last year’s Jigsaw, this feels more like an expression of pure talent- his Terminator — than a reclamation of the franchises he helped to originate — his Piranha II: The Spawnings). Set in the near future, where cybernetic implants and self-driving cars are the norm, Upgrade tells the story of Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a luddite mechanic whose life is turned upside down when his wife is murdered and he is paralyzed in what seems to be a botched robbery by a group of jackbooted ex-military men (they’ve got fucking guns implanted in their arms, so you know they’re badasses). He’s offered a chance to regain his mobility through an experimental implant called STEM — yeah, I know — and it works like a charm. That is, until STEM begins talking to him and begins compelling him to get revenge on the men who killed his wife, as the police, represented here by Blumhouse staple Betty Gabriel, aren’t doing anything to catch him. But STEM’s got a taste for blood and is thirsty for even more, and Grey will have to judge whether its worth taking those men out or letting an sociopathic AI totally control his body.

First things first, Whannell has crafted some incredible action sequences here — whenever Grey wants to fight someone in the film, he lets the AI take over his body — and he shoots each fight with a fascinating and mechanical precision befitting his protagonist(s). It’s reminiscent of Yuen Wo-Ping’s fight choreography in the Matrix series, but with an added layer of blood-and-guts intensity that will knock you flat on your ass if you’re not expecting it. It’s a brutality that’s befitting its corrupted future, where assassins can murder you with nanobots embedded in a goddamn sneeze, and where VR addicts are housed in flophouses, hooked to IVs so they don’t get dehydrated while living in the better digital world.

Whannell really relishes in documenting the underclass of this crazy landscape, and it helps that we’re given a sort of Dante-Virgil combo in Grey and STEM, whose symbiotic bond morphs the film into a peculiar kind of buddy comedy not unlike the relationship between Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones’ Moon. There are some moments that feel slight: Grey’s relationship with is wife is a bit underdefined, and the film’s attempts at misdirection don’t typically work as well as one might think they should, but Upgrade is a great deal of B-movie fun and posits an exciting future for Whannell as a genre filmmaker in his own right.

Both images via SXSW publicity. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo credit: Merrick Morton, Netflix. All rights reserved.