In a near-future of driverless cars, city-wide surveillance drones, and ‘augmented’ humans, technophobe Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is one of society’s few remaining holdouts. He prefers to tinker with old-fashioned muscle cars, one of which belongs to tech innovator Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who comes to Grey’s aide after he and his wife Asha (Melanie Valleji) are involved in an accident after their automated car goes haywire. Asha’s murdered by a gang of opportunistic thieves who find their overturned vehicle, and Grey becomes a paraplegic after a blow to the spine. Luckily, Eron offers to implant his untested AI chip STEM into Grey, which restores his mobility and, unexpectedly, endows with super-human abilities he can use to bring his wife’s killers to justice…
Upgrade is written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3), the hyphenate Australian filmmaker who’s developed a career that often updates, or “upgrades” (?), familiar ideas from 1970s and ’80s genre movies. His script for ventriloquist doll horror Dead Silence (2007) felt inspired by Magic (1978), while his Insidious movies recall Poltergeist (1982). Only his most famous creation, Saw (2004), feels distinct, although even that probably has roots in a mixture of things Whannell grew up on. Upgrade is most notably a mixture of The Six Million Dollar Man concept with Death Wish’s (1974) revenge fantasy, but weaves in a malevolent take on Her (2013), RoboCop (1987) levels of extreme violence, and Black Mirror-style talking points.
That’s a heady potent concoction of sci-fi influences, that Whannell elegantly channels to create something that still feels fresh. He even gets the jump on Venom (2018) by a few months, which is likewise about man driven crazy by a “voice” inside his head granting him extraordinary physical abilities.
Made for just $3–5M in Australia, Upgrade is an efficient and entertaining movie with enough ideas to balance the Brawl in Cell Block 99-style action. There isn’t much here we haven’t seen before in various guises, but Whannell is such a fan of his inspirations he knows how to subvert expectations surrounding them. So while it’s true things are occasionally a little predictable, it’s always in a fun way, or the story manages to spin down a different path you didn’t see coming. That the destination manages to surprise me speaks to how Whannell’s script cleverly hides its true intentions, as you’re suckered into thinking the film’s a bit stupider than it really is.
Upgrade hums along thanks to a good performance from Logan Marshall-Green (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who ensures Grey is always sympathetic because he’s just as delighted or horrified by what happens as the audience watching his escapades. Once STEM frees him from paraplegia (his Clark Kent-ish alter-ego remains a wheelchair-bound unfortunate), allowing him to function in the world again, you feel the giddy elation Grey goes through… but once STEM starts talking to him like a creepy hybrid of HAL and Baymax (voiced by Simon Maiden), essentially hijacking his body for its own ends, your reaction turns to horror that Grey’s a prisoner of the tech that liberated him.
Whannell isn’t known for his directing yet (having only helmed the third Insidious movie before this), but Upgrade might change that. He delivers some of the year’s best choreographed action sequences, a fight in a front room certainly a close second to Mission: Impossible—Fallout’s bathroom brawl. The style of their execution is also unlike anything you’ll have seen, because Grey effectively becomes a marionette as STEM pulls his “strings”, so Marshall-Green masterfully uses his body language to communicate how Grey’s not the one calling the shots.
This partnership of performance and camera craft gives the action an added thrill, as Grey’s punches, kicks, ducks, dodges, and jumps always come as a surprise even to him. The way the camera is often locked to Grey’s actions also works brilliantly; a technique familiar when directors want to show an actor is extremely drunk or high as a kite. Here, it gives everything a staccato feel that sells the speed and brutality of what’s happening, with just enough “uncanniness” for you to believe Grey’s gestures are not quite human. The only nitpick is there’s definitely suspension of disbelief required, because the human body shouldn’t really be able to do things like spring up on its heels after being laid out flat! But it sure does look cool.
It’s not a perfect movie, however. There’s a period in the middle when the thrill of what’s going on dissipates, and the meat of the story has to do the heavy-lifting… but isn’t quite as robust as one hoped. It’s never dull, but there comes a point when the movie isn’t quite shifting to the next level of intrigue fast enough, although things are rescued by an excellent climax that’ll outsmart most people. The ending is also very satisfying because the outcome plays fair with us.
In the age of mega-budget sci-fi spectacles that don’t have much on their minds, it’s great to have something that feels like a grubby ‘body horror’ thriller from the early-1990s, but with a modern spin and a clear artistic vision. Made for peanuts in the grand scheme of things, Upgrade is the sort of movie you don’t see very often nowadays. No wonder it made waves at the SXSW festival (winning the Midnighters Award), which was enough for it to get nationwide distribution and even international exposure in cinemas.
You’ll have worn Upgrade out on constant repeat 25 years ago, and it’s a pleasure to see a film about augmentation that succeeds in splicing old-school craft and grit onto contemporary concerns about where future bio-technology’s headed. It’ll at least make you very wary of getting inside an automated car when they become commonplace!
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Leigh Whannell.
starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Christopher Kirby, Clayton Jacobson & Sachin Joab.