If you’re looking for complex and nuanced themes like those found in Blade Runner 2049, or engrossing character dynamics akin to fellow modern sci-fi masterpiece Ex Machina, then Upgrade probably isn’t the movie for you. If you’re looking for a schlocky, gory, unabashedly 80s inspired sci-fi action fest, then Upgrade is definitely the film for you.
Set in a technologically enhanced, futuristic world, Upgrade follows old-school mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green). A seemingly random attack leaves Grey paralysed from the neck down and his wife (Melanie Vallejo) dead. Grey reluctantly agrees to a trial of a new device known as STEM—created by reclusive tech wunderkind, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson)—desperate for any opportunity to improve his life. The device, which is implanted in the spinal cord, can take over Grey’s body and can communicate with him—something only he can hear. This doesn’t only make him a near invincible fighter, but it also helps him to find the men who killed his wife.
The film was written and directed by Australian horror maestro Leigh Whannell, who scripted Saw and all of the Insidious films, and whose directorial debut with the third film in the latter’s franchise took off with a bang. Unsurprisingly, many were expecting a large amount of horror-inspired influences in Upgrade, but Whannell himself has insisted this is a sci-fi action film first and foremost. This feels like a film which is certainly a product of those inspirations. It has Robocop, The Terminator and Death Wish to thank for its existence. If you told me that this was a hyper-violent, extended Black Mirror episode, I would’ve bought it. With Upgrade being so reliant on its inspirations, it struggles to feel wholly unique and surprising. The film is a flat 95-minute revenge film, and with that, it sacrifices any sort of interesting worldbuilding and expansion on its interesting ideas in regard to futuristic surveillance. There’s one scene where they introduce an underground society of people who live their lives in virtual reality, but this isn’t explored in any great depth or detail at all.
Whannell focuses his screenplay solely on Grey’s mission of vengeance. As soon as the movie starts to lull, it is enhanced by its kinetic and truly insane hand-to-hand action sequences. As they involve Grey being shocked by his “upgraded” abilities, they often have a darkly comedic slant, and its these scenes which give the movie a shot of adrenaline.
Whannell directs them in a style which resembles a video game in the best way possible, incorporating some incredible camerawork which made my jaw drop more than once. These scenes never skimp on the gory violence, which elicited a lot of shocked laughter during the screening. If you had no expectations prior to seeing this film, then you’ll be taken aback by the hyper-stylised violence on show.
Marshall-Green, a Tom Hardy look-a-like, gives a very solid performance here. He effectively portrays Grey as a deeply broken soul and sells the darkly comedic moments during the action scenes. He’s often completely baffled by the insane things that his body is doing and nails this particularly well in the first big action scene. Gilbertson plays the creepy tech billionaire, Eron, but he really doesn’t have enough screen time to make a substantial impact on the narrative. This was especially frustrating since they set him up to be a really interesting and mysterious character, but Gilbertson played the creepy character well nonetheless. Like Marshall-Green, he was clearly type-cast based on another actor, as I couldn’t stop thinking that he was identical to Dane DeHaan whenever he made an appearance. Get Out’s Betty Gabriel shows up in what is another Blumhouse production and she’s fine, but her role as the detective assigned to Grey’s case is a pretty uncompelling stock character.
Upgrade does what it needs to do to be a grungy B-grade movie. Without Whannell’s technical prowess behind the camera this would probably be a film of the straight-to-DVD variety, but thanks to his fun and unashamedly gruesome style Upgrade often works. The action scenes certainly perk up a fairly conventional narrative. Visually, the film looks more expensive than its independent budget and shows Whannell can do some great things with a small price tag. The relationship between Grey and STEM is well developed and Marshall-Green is in his element in the lead role.
In short, go for the action, and learn to tolerate its story. Its third act revelation didn’t come as a huge shock. Yet, as soon as the film is about to bore, it springs to life with its dynamic action. Don’t enter Upgrade expecting a depth-filled parable on a futuristic surveillance state or the moral complications of being controlled by a non-human entity; instead, expect a grisly revenge movie, and you’ll come out satisfied.
Upgrade hits Perth cinemas on June 15.