Upgrade Review

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From the creator of Insidious and Saw comes a cybernetic sci-fi thriller that’s clever, violent, and only has a couple bugs in it.

Somewhere in the shadowy alleyways that separate Robocop and Death Wish lives Upgrade, a new science-fiction thriller about cybernetic implants, revenge and revenge with cybernetic implants. Directed by Leigh Whannell, the screenwriter who co-created the Saw and Insidious franchises, it’s a modestly budgeted but incredibly effective genre experiment, with only a few bugs in its system.

Logan Marshall Green stars as Grey, a classic car mechanic in an increasingly digital world. He’s the kind of guy who, when his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) suggests they order a pizza, suggests they make themselves a pizza instead. But whether he’s charmingly retro or just a stubborn luddite, Grey is happy as he could possibly be… until their self-driving car crashes itself right next to a gang of criminals, who kill Asha and break Grey’s spine.

Grey has lost everything, but one of his clients just happens to be a reclusive technological genius named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). Eron has a brand new invention, STEM, an implant which cybernetically reconnects the nerves in Grey’s spine and, as Grey is surprised to discover, can also speak directly into his brain. And since they now share the same body, STEM (voiced with uncomfortably dulcet tones by Simon Maiden) decides that they should share all the same goals.

Exit Theatre Mode

So together they plot to find the men who killed Asha and take their revenge, tracking down the bad guys and uncovering secret conspiracies. Fortunately, when things get dangerous, STEM has the ability to take over Grey’s body and put it on martial arts autopilot, performing death-defying feats of violence while Grey watches – helpless, and at turns either horrified or impressed – at what the artificial intelligence living inside of his body is capable of doing with it.

Upgrade is part superhero movie, part serious sci-fi, and part horror movie, and all those parts work together. Leigh Whannell clearly takes great pleasure in exploring all the unexpected ways STEM can “upgrade” Grey’s body, movements and senses, and explores the ramifications of an increasingly digital organism with as much depth as his fast-paced storyline will allow. It’s smart, it’s action-packed, it’s a whirlwind of a genre picture.

There’s no fat on Upgrade’s bones, but there is blood. Lots of blood. Many of the action scenes in Upgrade, with Grey fighting off criminals (some of whom have strange skills of their own), play like small-scale PG-13 superhero set pieces. But then all of a sudden STEM, using Grey’s body as a puppet, slams a knife between one of his opponent’s jaws. Whannell is the guy who helped create Saw after all, and he shows that gore in explicit detail.

It might seem unnecessary to the story, and the sudden shift from cartoon violence to shocking viscera is jarring, but it keeps Upgrade in its proper context. Whannell is telling a tragic story with, as time goes on, increasingly disturbing ramifications for the characters and the world in which they live. If the audience has too much goofy fun with it, the darker elements would be harder to accept later.

And Upgrade gets incredibly dark. It’s a vicious motion picture, anchored by an astounding performance by Logan Marshall-Green. He sells the pit of despair Grey succumbs to, the wonders of his newfound abilities, and then – in a physical performance worthy of the silent era – watches in awe as his body does impossible things that have nothing to do with him. He fights, he crashes, he seemingly defies the laws of gravity, and he’s even more incredulous than the audience. His body is playing an entirely different character than the rest of him, and he sells this strange concept beautifully.

Upgrade is a clever film but as it comes to a conclusion one gets the distinct impression that it’s leaning entirely on cleverness, and selling the emotional drama a little short. For most of the film, Upgrade is well-balanced between character, ideas and plot but in the end, the plot takes over and leads the film to a perhaps unexpected, but almost cloyingly pat resolution. Upgrade arguably ends the way it does for no other reason than because the movie values boldness above all else.

But this is a relatively minor complaint. Boldness is what makes this movie stand out. Upgrade puts the “punk” back into “cyberpunk.” It’s aggressive and it’s loud and it’s a rush, and if it blows out the speakers at the end, so be it.

The Verdict

Upgrade is an insidious and intense sci-fi action thriller with big ideas, incredible action and a remarkable lead performance. If the finale seems a little more intent on wrapping up the plot than leading the characters to satisfying, meaningful conclusions, that’s a small price to pay for all the excitement that came before it.

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