Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

Westworld Season Two, Episode Ten

west10Interesting thought- none of the characters, I believe, that we see at the very end of this episode- Delores, Bernard, or Charlotte, are the same people that we saw last season, or even midway through this one; they are copes, duplicates, replacements, Delores and Bernard literally newly rebuilt and hints left that Maeve herself will be soon rebuilt/resurrected back on the island  There must also be some doubt regards MIB William in the coda, too- clearly a host himself now in some unspecified future, as is his daughter Emily, who we saw him murder the week before but here interrogates him for fidelity (always think of Blade Runner‘s VK test with that). What is human? What is real? What, for that matter, of death in this brave new era of immortals?

So we come to the grand finale of a fairly troubled season two, and surprisingly, I do believe they pulled it off – I rather suspected it would be difficult for them to create a satisfying conclusion that would manage to tie most of everything up, but yes, they pretty much managed it. Indeed, it delivered one of those lovely endings that promised all new possibilities for season three but also got me eager for the eventual disc release so I can re-watch this second season and piece it all together with the perspective of hindsight. Indeed, it has me reaching for my season one set that I didn’t manage to watch prior to the second season aired. So I guess job done on all fronts really. Rather reminds me of season finales of Babylon 5 back in the good old days

Westworld has come a long way, when you think about it, and now that I look back across the last ten episodes, its quite an achievement. What impressed me most with this finale is the sheer bravura of it, killing so many characters and concluding quite a number of arcs that I feared they would be tempted to stretch out longer. Indeed, they even managed to get certain hosts out of the theme park altogether, and into the ‘real world’, suggesting all sorts of intriguing possibilities for season three and pushing things forward considerably, something I wouldn’t have expected for another season or two yet.

Setting up Delores and Bernard as opposites, their conflicting worldviews no doubt leaving them as rivals with the possible fate of humanity at stake. Each of them strangers in a strange land, simulacra in the world of real humans. Potentially Delores inhabiting two bodies at once- her newly resurrected normal body and that of the Charlotte duplicate.

I loved all that stuff in the Forge with the A.I. in the guise of poor Logan (a nod to the Architect in the Matrix, surely) explaining its high-concept reasoning about humanity and our natural limitations/algorithms that cast doubt on our own freewill. All that virtual world stuff. Its great. So too was that paradise that some of the hosts managed to escape to- a place I suspect we may yet revisit in the future (should have known that great premise of the Cradle wouldn’t be discarded for long). It rather raises all sorts of questions regards the nature of reality/identity, again, shades of the Matrix films, certainly. And of course we had further questions on what is human. So many layers within layers seem to grace this show, realities within realities with these simulated virtual worlds, so much so I began to wonder if everything we were watching was itself a simulation;  a surprisingly intellectual science-fiction series- yes, confusing, infuriating, confounding but also exhilarating and thought-provoking.

On the whole, while it wasn’t perfect I think it was a worthy follow-up to the first season, and really, season three has been set-up with so much promise, I can hardly wait. I rather suspect that if ever this show runs for five seasons, by that last season the show will be unrecognizable from how season one began.

Westworld Season Two- Episode 1

west1Just a few observations- firstly, having been enjoying Netflix just over a month now, having to digest a big show in weekly chunks just feels so old-fashioned its almost arcane. I mean, I watch one episode, and then… then I have to wait? WTF? (It occurs to me that I’ve never done a weekly review of a series episode by episode, maybe I should start with this show).

Secondly, when does being intellectually ‘clever’ get in the way of actually telling a story? Don’t get me wrong, I love Westworld and it’s one of my favourite shows of the past few years-  away from the nudity and violence, what I really like is the examinations of what it is to be human, the impact of memory, the possibilities of AI. Its really heady stuff and the idea someone can make such a popular show that is so high concept is just profoundly exciting. BUT…. sometimes a show can risk being too clever for its own good. I enjoyed the ‘twist’ in season one of the separate timelines, and this seems to be carrying on into season two. Fair enough, but I don’t really see what we gain from it at present, with how it’s going. What I’m saying is, it should be there to inform and tell the story, not the story there to support the multiple timelines for their own sake. I fear there may be a danger in that here. Don’t try to confuse me just for the hell of it, tell the story and if the story doesn’t benefit from that confusion, why is it there? Well, time will tell if these multiple timelines serves some purpose.

I’m also a little concerned that Delores is becoming the least interesting character now that she’s slipping into ‘avenging robot angel’ mode. She risks losing her sense of humanity and empathy. Whereas the focus is really shifting towards Bernard, easily now the most interesting character in the show, who on the one hand seems to be dealing with the mindf–k that must be knowing his true robot nature whilst hiding it from his colleagues who are (?) all unaware of it. I always had a soft spot for him in season one and it’s fascinating to imagine where he might take us this season.

Anyway, roll on episode two. Oh yeah, I have to wait….

…and wait….