Upgrade flew largely
under the radar when it came out last year, which is a shame. So, I am doing my
part to get it a wider audience by reviewing it. Upgrade is a near-future cyberpunk/action/horror film written and
directed by Leigh Whannell and produced through Blumhouse.
The story follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a
mechanic that specializes in restoring vintage cars. After delivering a car to high-tech
billionaire Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie
Vallejo) have their car hijacked, leaving Asha dead and Grey paralyzed from the
neck down. Eron approaches Grey in the hospital with an offer: he has created a
microchip (called STEM) that will allow Grey to regain his mobility. However, as
the development is not cleared for human experimentation, Grey will need to
keep it secret. He agrees and receives the chip, whereupon he learns STEM’s artificial
intelligence can communicate with him and, with his permission, assume control
of his body. The AI (voiced by Simon Maiden) helps him to track down the
attackers and under STEMs control, he becomes a hyper-competent fighter.
The movie becomes a race for Grey to learn why he and his
wife were targeted for attack, while staying ahead of Eron, who is not pleased
with how Grey is using STEM. The attackers, led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie), are hunting
to learn who is taking them out. And then there is Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the
detective investigating Asha’s murder. She suspects Grey is killing Fisk’s men
despite appearing to be a quadriplegic.
Leigh Whannell, best known for writing the Saw franchise for James Wan, has
branched out from writing to directing. He brings a distinctive visual feeling
that shows influence from Wan, while still remaining original. Made on a
typical Blumhouse shoestring budget of $5 million, every cent shows on screen,
from the near-future cyberpunk aesthetic to the brilliant cinematography
whenever STEM assumes control of Grey’s body. The movie is paced like an action
film but builds tension like a horror film.
The cyberpunk setting is handled well. There is no year
given, which will help the movie from dating itself too much. The advancements
we see – self-driving cars and voice-activated devices making meals and helping
around the house – are excellent extrapolations of current tech. This helps to ease
the audience into the more advanced tech that drives the plot.
As the lead, Logan Marshall-Green does an amazing job. Due to his resemblance to Tom Hardy, there
are some inevitable comparisons, but by the end of the film Marshall-Green’s abilities
truly shine through. He conveys Grey’s frustration and grief, but also plays
his shock and confusion when STEM is in control and performing some truly
Betty Gabriel, best known as the maid in Get Out, does a good job as Cortez. She
does well in showing her simultaneous confusion at how Grey could possibly be
taking out trained killers from a wheelchair and her certainty that he is doing
it. Harrison Gilbertson is serviceable as Eron. The character is meant to be
creepy, which he brings across, but there is not much else to the character. Benedict
Hardie’s Fisk is the weak link in the acting. He is never anything but an over-the-top
fanatic. This is very evident in scenes with Marshall-Green who brings a much
more nuanced performance. Simon Maiden manages to steal the movie as the voice
of STEM. He manages to be sympathetic and menacing, often at the same time.
I give Upgrade a
grade of B. It is a solid movie that genre fans will embrace whole-heartedly.
Non-genre fans should still enjoy it for the tight action and pace.