Leigh Whannell relies on old-fashioned effects in ‘Upgrade’

After making mostly horror movies, Australian-born writer-director Leigh Whannell has crafted his first sci-fi movie, the exciting “Upgrade.”

To Whannell, that doesn’t mean much.

“Sometimes the filmmaker is the least qualified person to know exactly what the genre is,” he said during a recent visit to The City. “Genre labels are always curious because I feel like a lot of the time, the audience, the studio or the media are the ones that assign the labels, and you don’t necessarily have a hand in it.”

Whannell, who wrote 2004’s “Saw” while his friend James Wan directed, says, “We thought of ‘Saw’ as this locked-room thriller, and then Lionsgate marketed it as an all-out horror movie. But we rolled with it.”

Previously, Whannell worked with Wan on the “Insidious” movies and made his directing debut on “Insidious: Chapter 3.” He also acted in those films, playing Specs, a paranormal investigator.

“Upgrade” stars Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, an old-fashioned guy living in a high-tech future; he tinkers with a roaring Dodge Charger while other people poke at their phones in the backs of self-driving cars.

When his wife dies — and he becomes paralyzed — in a crash, he learns that it may not have been an accident. He accepts a kind of computer chip implant that allows him to walk again and gives him special abilities, which he uses to track down the culprits.

Betty Gabriel (who memorably played Georgina in “Get Out”) costars as a cop who begins to suspect a connection between the quadriplegic man and a rash of revenge murders.

Whannell knew he was lucky to cast Gabriel. “She’s incredible. She’s such a casual person, but when she gets on camera, she’s able to flip a switch. She can go from laughing to total intensity in a half a second. I was amazed watching her.”

As “Upgrade” seems like something a movie buff might have rented on VHS tape in the 1980s, Whannell says he was inspired by “Videodrome,” “The Terminator” and “Robocop.”

While he enjoys scrolling through iTunes menus and is happy for the immediate viewing experience today’s technology offers, he thinks something has been lost in the 21st century. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the local video store was my church,” he says, “I’m still nostalgic about that ritual of looking through the covers.”

He wanted “Upgrade” to have a non-computer generated feel, like movies he admired decades ago that had somewhat limited budgets and practical visual effects.

“A lot of time, with me, CG looks like high-end animation. Rather than making it more realistic, there’s a removing quality. It’s too shiny,” he explains. After re-watching “Jurassic Park,” a groundbreaker in the field of computer effects, he says, “The parts of that movie I love the best are the practical stuff. In the T-Rex attack, you just see an eye! You can tell that that creature was actually built. It’s actually there in front of the actors. That stuff is so much more affecting than the big wide shots.”


Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes

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