As a general rule, I don’t tend to proclaim movies that open with $4.46 million on 1,400 screens to be big wins. But, relatively speaking, with a demographically-targeted theater selection and an efficient and digital-specific marketing campaign, you can make the case that BH Tilt’s Upgrade is a solid win for the small-scale Blumhouse offshoot. The company began releasing genre flicks in 2015, starting with the much-delayed The Green Inferno, with the idea being to find a balance between saturated wide theatrical release and VOD debuts. Some of those films (Green Inferno, Sleight) have been better than others (Belko Experiment, Birth of the Dragon), but it has been interesting to watch the company navigate the complicated waters of an era when folks are hesitant to see non-event movies in theaters.
But that’s a digression. Yes, I’ve seen Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade and yes it’s a mostly enjoyable bit of unapologetic B-movie trash. The gritty and grimy sci-fi thriller concerns a man (Logan Marshall-Green) who loses his wife and becomes a paraplegic after a random mugging. He gets a shot at a new life, and eventually bloody revenge, via an experimental computer chip implant that lets him walk again and eventually reveals itself to be a fully-functioning AI with some superhuman abilities. It’s a mix of The Wraith, Robocop and The Crow, with the primal story of a man who essentially “dies” (no, I’m not necessarily equating paralysis with death, and the film really doesn’t either) via violence and then gets a somewhat supernatural/science-fiction ability to avenge his own victimization.
It is somewhat ironic that Upgrade opened within days of the long-gestating remake of The Crow falling apart yet again. We have been writing about various attempts to revive and reboot that 1994 cult classic since at least 2011. This time, it lost star Jason Momoa and director Corin Hardy, meaning that Sony is the latest company to be left Crow-less. As I wrote 1.5 years ago when those two joined what was going to be The Crow Reborn if Hollywood had just ripped off The Crow they might have had a franchise by now. There is no reason why some studio couldn’t at least try to essentially make a new “person dies by violence but comes back to take revenge against their murderers” movie and hope for the best.
Since the time we first started hearing about a Crow remake, I’ve had two new children, turned my hobby into a career, and bought a house. It’s hard to remember a time in my life when we weren’t THIS close to getting a remake/reboot of The Crow. And we should remember that the Robocop remake spent nine years (!) being developed before it finally released in February of 2014 to a relative shrug, fewer tickets sold in North America than the first two Robocop movies and $242 million worldwide on a $100m budget. Ditto the Point Break remake that flopped in 2015, just under a year after Furious 7, the seventh installment of a franchise whose first flick was a glorified rip-off of Point Break, grossed $1.5 billion worldwide.
Yes, I’m comparing a decently-budgeted Crow reboot to a microbudget sci-fi grindhouse flick that will be lucky to break $10m domestic. Over the long haul, the rip-off/original has a much better chance of being a beloved cult favorite than the mostly unrequested remake. While The Crow may be a classic “awareness doesn’t equal interest” property, I will also admit that if they don’t spend gazillions of dollars on this new Crow movie, and I have no idea what’s the tab from these previous near-misses, it’s not an automatically doomed proposition. However, if “they” had just ripped off The Crow back in 2012 (back when non-event movies had more of a fighting chance) and created a successful original genre film using the template, they’d probably have a trilogy by now.
The Crow is mostly known as “that goth-y and violent comic book movie you liked as a kid” or “the movie where Brandon Lee was shot and killed in a tragic and ironic on-set accident,” but it still has a cult following and IP is king. The Crow, which earned $50 million domestic in 1994 and spawned two sequels and a television series, is one of many versions of the primal “murder victim comes back from the dead to avenge himself and protect his loved ones” myth. It was based on a comic book with specific narrative elements and characters, but it was the latest retelling of a core folktale. Obvious roots in Jesus’s resurrection story notwithstanding, we’ve been telling this story at the movies at least as long as The Wraith back in 1986.
That Charlie Sheen-starring film was an original story of a murdered teen who avenged his death via high-speed drag race chases, just as Robocop was an original story a year later about a murdered cop who was turned into a robot who rediscovered his humanity while avenging himself. Alex Proyas’ The Crow was another successful telling of this story, with Lee’s death admittedly giving it an extra layer of poignancy and tragedy. You don’t need to remake or reboot The Crow. You can just rip it off. Nothing is stopping some studio from producing/releasing a new movie about a person who dies unjustly coming back to life to avenge their passing and restore a sense of order/justice to the world before passing onto the “next world.”
If you fashion your own “avenging angel” story, you’re not beholden to source fidelity and not under the microscope of an existing fan base. Upgrade, no spoilers, is a prime example of an original being able to take its story in unexpected directions precisely because it is neither intended to start a franchise or beholden to a fanbase of the source material. As I wrote back in 2014, the biggest problem with the Robocop remake was that it was a remake of Robocop, constantly interrupting itself to play out established beats from the 1987 original. If you make an original, you establish the rules of the game, you create your own memorable characters. You won’t be judged by the standards of the prior versions of said property.
Like Stargate, which also canceled its reboot, it was a hit back in 1994 because it was different from the pack. The Crow was a brutally violent, R-rated, set-in-the-present, comic book horror thriller. And in that sense, it has held up pretty well. Now it (and Stargate, which was the first original big-budget sci-fi spectacle of its kind since Star Wars) is being pursued for reinvention precisely because it is a known quantity and was once a “new and different” smash hit. That’s the industry, in a nutshell, today. This redo has been killed so many times that I’m starting to wonder if the spirit of the original rose from the dead back in 2011 and is discreetly bumping off these new attempts. Hey, that’s your movie right there!
While we wait to see if The Crow flies again, you might want to put your money where your “We want original movies!” mouth is and use that MoviePass on Upgrade. It’s not any kind of genre masterpiece, but it’s a solid piece of 1980’s homage that both looks lovely on a big screen and would probably play great as a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy VHS viewed on a 25-inch tube-TV. It’s a loose riff on the same core concept that powered Robocop and The Crow, as well as Death Wish and any number of conventional vigilante flicks. Hey, by the way, how did that Death Wish remake turn out for MGM? Oh… $34 million on a $30m budget with fewer tickets sold than the first three Death Wish movies? The prosecution rests.