Leigh Whannell, who penned the scripts that kicked off both the Saw and Insidious franchises, both of which began with James Wan at the helm, makes his second feature as director and writer following Insidious: Chapter 3.
Upgrade is set in the near future and follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a technophobe, out of place in a time where tech runs everything. One fateful night, his wife is murdered and he is shot, left for dead. He awakens to find that he is now paralysed and that those responsible haven’t been brought to justice. Tech wizard Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) approaches Grey with an offer: allow an experimental, unreleased computer chip named Stem be placed in his body and have the ability to move and walk again. Trace agrees, albeit reluctantly. Before long, he finds himself on a path of revenge, with a vocal Artificial Intelligence in his brain providing ideas and upgrading his movements and senses. This piece of technology is also learning at a rapid pace.
There’s a grungy, cyberpunk vibe to Upgrade that makes it feel right at home alongside films like Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. There’s also a nice dose of body horror on offer for those that dig David Cronenberg’s early films. Which is to say, there’s influence felt at almost every corner of sci-fi thriller Upgrade, which is both empowered and brought down by the many cinematic tropes it chooses to employ.
That being said, Whannell does a good job in mixing up the familiar elements into a bloody, fast-paced, entertaining package. There’s a nice energy to the whole thing that keeps interest going even when it dips into silly territory and the limitation of the budget begins to show. Whannell’s screenplay puts forth a number of interesting sci-fi ideas to chew on, primarily looking at how the conveniences technology provides can limit as much as benefit. There’s a scene where Trace has to think of a plan, or at least he wants to think of a plan, but why bother, when Stem can easily do it for him. The device in our pocket sure saves us a lot of time when we’re trying to decide on something, but just how much does that “suggestion” we find online actually dictate our decision?
While there are some great seeds of sci-fi ideas – yes, many of which have been tackled before – Whannell seems a little too dependent on the much-travelled path of vengeance rather than to explore mind-bending theories and scenarios. The finale brings about a heady bit of sci-fi goodness, but, again, it’s a familiar turn and isn’t nearly as surprising as it should have been.
The cast are well suited and the performances are adequate. As Trace, Logan Marshall-Green is in fine form in a role that gives him a decent bit to work with. Unfortunately, the character’s arc doesn’t quite work as well as it should, going from in-the-dumps victim to smart alec badass too quickly. Luckily, and importantly, Marshall-Green’s back and forths with Stem are good fun, with Simon Maiden putting in some nice voice work as the bit of tech.
The kinetic action is certainly a drawcard. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio (Jungle, The Mule) frame up some slick moments of violence, using the camera in almost robotic, video game-esque movements. The visuals are great, and while Whannell and co. deserve applause for doing a lot with a modest budget, there are a number of sequences that feel as though they could have gone further in terms of scope and effects. And it’s the desire for more that unfortunately holds Upgrade back from greatness; you’re left wanting a deeper analysis of the ideas, wanting more of that action, etc.
Despite the shortcomings, Upgrade is an enjoyable, efficiently crafted mash-up of sci-fi action-thriller and body-horror that should tick off the right boxes for genre fans. It’s also a nice move for Whannell, with a showcase of slick direction and control of tone that bodes well for his future as a director.