Leigh Whannell confuses me a little. His breakthrough as a screenwriter was Saw, an entertaining and well-written thriller that admittedly owed a substantial debt to Se7en. Having written the second and third instalment after it was optioned for sequels, Whannell seemingly gave up after studios demanded increasing gratuitousness and clunky plot development. But then he would go on to pen the dreadful Dead Silence and Insidious franchise, before making his directorial debut with the third offering in the latter series, and I thought ‘Hmm, I suppose this dude just had one relatively decent original idea and couldn’t pump out anything else worthwhile’. But then he wrote and directed Upgrade, which I thought was an absolutely brilliant science-fiction vigilante romp, superbly acted, robust gallows humour and sharp, substantive writing abound. ‘I guess I was actually wrong, this guy has most certainly got the chops’, I thought. It was for that reason that I ebulliently anticipated Whannell’s take on the H.G. Wells classic The Invisible Man, and for that reason that I was ultimately sorely disappointed at the way he hashed out a reboot that was initially very engaging and slickly suspenseful before dematerialising into a cliched fuck-all.
Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) is a young woman trapped in a relationship with wealthy optics engineer Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). A narcissistic sociopath, Adrian routinely subjects Cecilia to physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting and setting her up to fail if he isn’t outright hitting her for some perceived infraction. Clinging to her last thread of psychological wherewithal, she carefully sneaks out of their bed one night, grabs a pre-packed bag of belongings and hightails it out of their large compound into some nearby woods where she frantically awaits a pick-up from her sister Emily (Harriet Dryer).
Cut to a fortnight later, Cecilia is staying at the home of childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) a hulking, super-amiable policeman who lives with his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Despite James’ strongly empathetic and protective household dynamic and Emily making regular visits, Cecilia is still a quivering wreck, plagued by nightmares and unable to set foot out the front door. There appears to be a semblance of closure to her pain when Emily comes by to announce that Adrian has been found dead, having committed suicide while home alone in his kitchen one evening. Summoned to a meeting with oily lawyer Tom (Michael Dorman), who happens to be Adrian’s probate overseer and also his younger brother, Cecilia is informed that $5 million has been left to her in the will, which will be paid in $100,000 sums every month for the next 4 years on the provision that she commits no crimes (a weirdly specific stipulation given that there is no indication in the narrative of her having an inclination to criminal behaviour). Optimistic at the prospect of truly being able to have her own life and a future rife with possibilities given her unexpected bequest, Cecilia decides that it’s definitely time to close this chapter and turn the next page. Until something odd starts happening.
Cold, unnatural sensations begin to follow her into every room. Stove hobs become accelerated to the point of nearly causing a fire for no apparent reason, duvets end up on the other side of the room in the middle of the night, and Cecilia’s loved ones begin to be inexplicably assaulted and receive malicious emails, supposedly her own doing. Remembering how incredibly intelligent and dangerous Adrian was, and the fact that he always stressed that it would be impossible for her to ever leave him, Cecilia begins to frantically exclaim that his death is bullshit. He was an innovator in his particular field of science, and he has obviously engineered a way to make himself invisible in order to carry out a Max Cady-style campaign of violence and mental torture, one where Cecilia is the only one remotely attuned as to what’s actually occurring. As the nastiness mounts in intensity and everyone around her begins to fear that she’s lost the plot, Cecilia desperately scrambles to pin down evidence and defeat her ostensibly deceased former beau once and for all.
As for the positives of this work, it begins very well and carries that momentum for the first half, as indicated by the review title. There is no reliance on jump scares, and the pacing and cinematography strongly capture the eerie sense of being alone but not alone, as does Elisabeth Moss’ excellent performance. Use is made of that wonderful old-school technique of displaying something awful occurring in panoramic view with no feasible explanation, while nobody is present in the room. For the first hour, there is an encouraging notion that the film will commit to showing and not telling, scaring the audience with a vague sense of displacement and aiming to raise their neck-hairs as opposed to trying to make their hearts tear through their chests with incessant and abrasive musical jolts and shouty, split-second bogeymen. I was stupidly grinning at how anxious I felt, confident that another blow had been struck for effective, intelligent horror.
Alas, it didn’t hold up for much longer. I would posit that infusing a horror film with hard sci-fi in a superficially realistic setting requires some modicum of satisfying exposition. Part and parcel of the audience’s terror is the mental gymnastics they endure in wondering just how possible it is for a particular kind of abomination to creep into reality, but the film has a gaping hole in that regard. It begins to substitute its smartly eldritch set-up for something that ends up resting fully on the Tired Formulas Playbook. With the exception of Elisabeth Moss, the performances of all involved begin to wither and lose verisimilitude as the tale progresses, and what could have been a film ready to take its place among the best examples of the contemporary revival of cerebral horror becomes another exercise in messy motivation and predictable suspense sequences.
I almost feel bad saying it, as Upgrade is so adroitly written and directed that I’m puzzled as to how Whannell, with full creative control as he was there, would create something that has a deceptively strong cinematic constitution before devolving into average tv movie-of-the-week fare. I’m aware that Universal execs demanded this of him, so I’m not entirely sure as to whether he was rushing a script or just simply had a dud run. What begins as a wonderfully creepy psycho-thriller ends up being a weird, horribly by-the-numbers mash-up of Sleeping With The Enemy & Predator (trust me, it is nowhere near as intriguing as that might sound). Moss should be commended on her believable performance, but this is far from the supposedly whipsmart, feminist-tinged horror that it’s being touted as. Come on Leigh, get back on the horse mate.