In 2009, Fox released James Cameron’s Avatar, an absurdly expensive, but also absurdly profitable, science fiction adventure featuring cutting-edge special effects. Its success provided further confirmation to what had already become entrenched conventional wisdom in Hollywood: Movies should be big because big makes money. That same year, Paramount distributed Paranormal Activity, a horror movie shepherded by the then–little-known Blumhouse Productions. Directed by the unknown Oren Peli, it originally cost $15,000, was shot on consumer-grade video cameras, and had already been kicking around festivals for a couple of years. It went on to gross nearly $200 million, confirming that conventional wisdom didn’t always apply.
Since then, Jason Blum’s company has released everything from Oscar nominees like Whiplash to a reboot of Benji, with future releases including Spike Lee’s Cannes Grand Prix–winning BlacKkKlansman. But Blumhouse has made its name and its fortune with horror movies. These have ranged from low-budget, direct-to-video-on-demand titles to M. Night Shyamalan’s recent comeback efforts The Visit and Split to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an instant genre classic that earned an original-screenplay Oscar alongside multiple other nominations. The logic behind the approach is simple: Genre fans are hungry for movies, and it’s tough to lose money on any smartly packaged film below a certain budgetary threshold. Develop a reputation for turning out quality movies (at least most of the time) and cultivate healthy relationships with talented filmmakers who enjoy working with you, and you’re on your way to success.
But can what’s worked with horror work with science fiction, another genre with a dedicated built-in fan base? That’s a question that could be answered by Upgrade, a new film by writer-director Leigh Whannell, best known for the Saw movies. Set in the near future, it stars Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, a work-at-home mechanic who spends his days restoring old muscle cars for a selective, and dwindling, clientele of connoisseur holdouts in a world where self-driving cars have become the norm. In fact, automated everything is now the norm, and Grey himself becomes a test case for an extreme application when, after being paralyzed in an attack that leaves his wife dead, he’s implanted with an experimental chip that restores his mobility and effectively gives him superpowers. The only problem: The chip has a mind of its own.
Whannell’s relationship with Blumhouse dates back to Insidious, the 2010 film he wrote for frequent collaborator James Wan (and in which he plays a supporting role). That film and its sequels—Whannell made his directorial debut with the third entry, Insidious: Chapter 3—better define the Blumhouse aesthetic than the Paranormal Activity series. They’re clever and stylish within the limitations of their budgets, and they sometimes use those limitations to their benefit. Whannell brings a similar approach to Upgrade while changing up the genre. We only see a few small corners of its vision of a possible future, but they’re filled with telling details and intriguing glimpses of the world around them.
The action scenes, in which Grey fights with the precision of a computer that’s reduced martial arts to a series of quickly processed algorithms, serve as the film’s centerpieces, but they never feel like Upgrade’s raison d’être. Whannell commits to making a science fiction film plugged into the moment in which we’re living, and making grim projections of what might be around the corner, from network-free gathering places for the few who want to opt out, to a surveillance state aided by drones, to procedures that implant guns beneath the skin. (It’s the ultimate in concealed carry.)
Does this represent a new opportunity for Blumhouse? The company dipped its toe in low-budget science fiction last year (and the political implications that sometimes come with it) with The Belko Experiment and the violent dystopia of The Purge and its sequels. But Upgrade takes a more definitive step in that direction, and if it’s the beginning of more from Blumhouse, it could drastically alter the science fiction landscape just as the company has with horror.
Most of the science fiction films that now make it to theaters aspire to the Avatar rather than the Paranormal Activity model. Think Guardians of the Galaxy and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. (You don’t get a thousand planets on a shoestring budget!) Small- to midbudget science fiction remains the exception, and studios don’t always know what to do with the few films they make that fit that description. For every 10 Cloverfield Lane there’s the Alex Garland–directed Annihilation, one of 2018’s best films, even if hardly anyone went to go see it.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not an appetite for them. The success of Black Mirror suggests that audiences are open to such themes, which could easily play out at feature length, as some Black Mirror episodes already do. Apart from the occasional exception like Okja, Black Mirror’s U.S. home, Netflix, mostly looks to more blockbuster-y models for its science fiction films—or at least the titles it pushes, like The Cloverfield Paradox. But Blumhouse, which has savvily marketed to fans of one genre, already appears to be in a good position to court another. If the time has ever been right for timely science fiction to make a comeback, it’s surely now, when rapid and alarming changes often make the world already seem like the stuff of a genre that, at its best, uses the strange and fantastic to reflect where we are and warn us of where we could be headed.