Film & TV

Leigh Whannell's Latest Film Is a Cautionary Tale

We sat down with the man behind the Saw franchise about his latest tech-heavy picture.
Reading time 7 minutes

There's no denying we live in a digital age. Advancements in technology have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, dictating our social interactions, infiltrating our psyches, all in the name of making things easier. But technology isn't just part of our daily reality. It has also been treated as a muse, inspiring culture in the forms of books, television, music, art, and more. Of course, the film industry has been no exception. Movies like I, Robot and Wall-E included. 

A new sci-fi film from director Legh Whannell does this, too: the very visceral, action-packed thriller titled Upgrade out now. The film takes place in the near future and centers on the life of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) a self-described technophobe. After a crazy turn of events, he ultimately has to rely on the technology he so adamantly detests in order to right the wrongs of many, seeking revenge with the help of an experimental computer chip implant called Stem.

But this isn't your average run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. Upgrade also functions as a cautionary tale against our ever-growing dependency on tech. Whannell paints a very real portrait of what our future could actually look like, one that is both beautiful and equally terrifying. 

L’Officiel USA spoke with Whannell about Upgrade, tech, film reviews, and more. 



Where did the name Upgrade come from?

In the movie, the bad guy refers to people that have tech inside their bodies as "The upgraded," so [it came from]  this idea of upgraded people. I didn't want to make a robot film. Robot films have been done many times before—and done really well—but I felt like another robot movie wouldn’t necessarily say anything new. What was interesting to me was a film about human beings and tech in their bodies. I actually think there will come a point where we could upgrade ourselves.


Going off on that, what parts of our present inspired this futuristic world we see on screen?

A lot of it was influenced by where we are now. Automated cars, Alexa, Siri, all this stuff is pretty common now so I wanted the film to feel like it was just around the corner. What I didn't want to do was make a Blade Runner-esque vision of the future. I made sure that the tech in the film was springboarded from ideas that are pretty common now like smart homes and smart kitchens. It's really about human beings letting tech control too much of our lives. There's sort of an anxiety in the world today that has been spurred on by these devices we hold and slavishly devote ourselves to.


Can you tell me more about the whole vigilante/police relationship in the film? All I could think was "Damn, even in the future the police don't really do shit."

Yeah! [Laughs] They have been automated as well. In the film, the character that Betty Gabriel plays is one of the last detectives to actually use her own instinct and isn't just relying on phones and surveillance footage. So, I wanted that police scenario to quick back to that scene as well of this automation and then delegating our daily lives to computers. I wanted that to be just as prevalent there. 

[In the film,] Cortez (Betty Gabriel) and Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) are kind of kindred spirits. They're both old souls in this super digitized, modern world. They are examples of two people that still like to connect with other human beings. They look people in the eye when they talk to them, they're patient, they listen, and these are qualities that are disappearing fast. I think our attention spans are disappearing within tech, and I wanted the detective character to be this relic for a time when people actually did listen and focus and had an attention span longer than six seconds.

Why did you decide to include gore? Was that to paint a more realistic picture? Shock value?

I would never do anything for shock value. I always look at what the story is [and] what we are trying to say. I knew I wanted it to feel like a gut punch. I was inspired by the sci-fi films I grew up with in the '80s such as The Terminator, Scanners, Robocop, films that were made using practical effects before the advent of CGI. There’s a real gut punch quality to them. They were violent and I loved the compact nature of them. Sci-fi films in today's world have become kind of bloated, filled with noise, color and movement. They're three hours long, and I wanted to have that more lean and mean version of sci-fi.

For lack of a better term, I wanted to go back to that punk attitude. So I guess that's where the kind of violence came in. It felt to me, that being set in this world where our own humanity is being violently wrenched away from us [that] this movie [should] be visceral and raw.


Which scene for you was most difficult to shoot?

I think the first fight scene we shot was pretty difficult. We were in a really tight space at the location in this house and we had a large part of this fight scene take place in this tiny kitchen and there wasn’t much room for a camera crew in that kitchen. There was so much to concentrate on. We had breakaway props, actors actually doing the fighting, prosthetic makeup, choreography, [and] we were testing out this new camera technique for the first time. There [were] a lot of nerves that day about that.


How important was it for you to show these human relationships contrasted against their relationship to tech/machines.

Very important. That was really the theme of what I was going for. I wanted the contrast of that motherly love. In the movie h,e returns home and he's a quadriplegic. He's confined to a wheelchair and he's reliant on technology to feed him and medicate him and his house has been updated and automated to look after him. It was important for me to draw that contrast to say that these machines may look after him but there's something they can't provide that his mother can. There's still that human element. There's always going to be something that the computer cannot provide. It's care [and] love so it was important to show that.


I read a review recently, and it said, “No need to see Upgrade when you’ve already seen it a thousand times.” What’s your response to this?
I haven’t read that review, but I don’t know. When you make a film you put all your best effort into it. You work as hard as you can and then you release it into the world and it’s not yours anymore. It’s so beyond your control. I try not to think about it, I try to only fret about the things that are in my control, you know, what type of music I’m using, what type of camera we are using: all that stuff is within my control. I know that I definitely poured a lot of work into this film [and] I’m super passionate about it. So I guess when it comes to reviews, my attitude is that you can say you don’t like the film, but you can’t say I didn’t work my ass off on it.

Leigh Whannell's Upgrade is in theaters now. 

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