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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

How Leigh Whannell’s ‘Upgrade’ Is the Most Authentic Video Game Movie Not Based on a Video Game

To find cinema’s most authentic video game movie, we must turn to something that isn’t based on an existing video game property at all. With its canny inclusion of video game devices and aesthetics, film-makers could learn a lot from Upgrade.

It may be an original film from writer-director Leigh Whannell but it’s Upgrade that best embodies the feel and aesthetics of contemporary video games. Pore over its pulpy sci-fi plot and look closely at its curiously familiar cinematography, and you’ll find that the flick owes as much to the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 4 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution as it does RoboCop, Death Wish and The Matrix.

The 2018 cyberpunk body horror casts Logan Marshall-Green as gruff technophobe Grey Trace, who cares more for outmoded muscle cars than he does self-driving vehicles, virtual assistants and anything approaching the movie’s version of contemporary tech-led living. His wife Asha is more sensitive to such advancements. Not that that matters; she’s dead within the first 15 minutes. When the couple’s autonomous car mysteriously malfunctions and they’re ambushed by hoodlums, Asha is killed and Trace left paralyzed. Three months later, tech tycoon Eron persuades Trace to accept a computer-chip implant known as Stem, which will help the quadriplegic get back on his feet – and claim his vengeance.

There’s one small detail that Eron neglected to mention when he fixed his fancy little widget to Trace’s spinal column though: it can talk. It’s here, in the relationship between Stem and Trace, that the Blumhouse-produced picture makes use of a clever information-relay device long common in video games.

Wired directly to Trace’s brain, Stem is an artificial intelligence that provides the protagonist not only with physical assistance but with information. In many video games, the player-character is accompanied by a companion, sometimes unseen, whose job it is to give similar guidance in the field of duty. It’s a trick used to pass instruction and exposition to the player without breaking their immersion. Think Navi, the interminably irritating fairy that follows player-character Link around while highlighting points of interest in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the Ghosts of Destiny, smarmy floating cuboids that shadow the game’s Guardians and inform players of incoming threats. Perhaps the most appropriate example, though, is Metal Gear Solid’s Codec system, which serves not as a sidekick but as a gateway to many.

In 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, the radio-based system allows player-character Solid Snake to contact a number of specialists, all of whom offer counselling based on their areas of expertise. The Codec’s receiver functions by manipulating the small bones of the ear so that only the user can hear its transmissions. In Whannell’s story, Stem is similarly routed right into Trace’s brain. For the viewer, the effect is the same. When Trace is stuck for options, he calls on Stem for assistance, which tells him where to go and what to do, in much the same way that Colonel Campbell might remind Snake (and the player) of his current objective or an enemy’s weak points.

Like the death-and-respawn mechanic endemic to video games but adapted by Edge of Tomorrow, this is a low-key way to help viewers feel like they’re playing a video game even when they have no input over the action. Adopting video game devices familiar to players, rather than simply shooting a video game’s story for the silver screen, is surely the strongest way for cinema to interpret the more interactive medium.

Not only does Whannell make use of video game devices, he also borrows from the medium’s visual language. Upgrade features multiple SnorriCam-style shots that recall the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective with which we view many video game heroes. Here, cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s camera is locked to the protagonist’s body, just as it is in Resident Evil 4, The Last of Us and countless others.

Films have aped video game staging before. Not only is Edgar Wright’s barnstorming Scott Pilgrim vs the World replete with video game iconography, the side-on blocking of its magical-realist fight scenes explicitly evokes the look of punch-simulators such as Street Fighter and Tekken. The film was even released alongside a tie-in game developed by Ubisoft. The hallway hammer thrashing in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, shot from the side and in one take, brings to mind side-scrolling smack-em-ups such as Double Dragon and Final Fight. In fact, this scene is so redolent of video games that, in 2014, it was turned into one too.

Like Whannell’s jacked-up B-movie, both of these echo, advertently or otherwise, the aesthetics of video games. But for many video game-to-film adaptations, the references are more overt. The 2005 action-horror Doom features a fun first-person sequence for which the camera is clamped atop the protagonist’s rifle, in homage to the iconic 1993 game on which it’s based. It’s a nice nod but the effect rips the viewer out of the film. In Doom, the styles clash. Like Wright in 2010, Whannell found a way to make them work together.

For his part, Logan Marshall-Green contributes to Upgrade’s video game credentials too. The actor based Trace’s movements while under Stem’s control – sharp, smooth, efficient – on those of Zenyatta, the infinitely chill robo-monk from colourful online shooter Overwatch.

For further inspiration, he might have looked to another, more apposite video game. While none of the aspects that make up Upgrade’s plot are unique to video games, it’s still remarkable how closely its set-up resembles that of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The transhumanist stealth-action odyssey kicks off with player-character Adam Jensen working as a security guard for a controversial tech empire. After bioenhanced terrorists attack, murder Jensen’s ex-girlfriend and leave him for dead, he wakes up months later having been installed with cybernetic implants of his own.

Both stories go on to grapple with the fear of augmentations taking over the augmented. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has four possible endings, all morally ambiguous. In Upgrade, there’s one – and it’s not ambiguous at all: this is the bad ending, the kind that’d see you scrambling to reload an old save. The picture concludes with Stem forcing Trace to murder Eron, before locking him inside his own mind and claiming dominion over his body. Game over.

Alongside The Raid and Dredd, whose level-by-level geography calls to mind the bottom-to-top structure of many video games, a lot can be learnt from Upgrade’s quiet reflection of the medium’s devices and aesthetics. With the recent news that Blumhouse Television is set to turn the film into a TV series directed by Whannell, we can only hope that this smart interplay between cinema and video games continues.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3623605/leigh-whannells-upgrade-authentic-video-game-movie-not-based-video-game/

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