Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell.
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Simon Maiden, Richard Cawthorne, Betty Gabriel, Michael M. Foster, Harrison Gilbertson, and Benedict Hardie.
Set in the near-future, technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when Grey, a self-identified technophobe, has his world turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant called Stem.
Putting a refreshing spin on the classic man/machine dynamic isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. Take Robocop as a prime example; it was remade to fit the current societal and political landscape but fell flat on its face saying nothing new and as the worst offense of all, was incredibly tame and boring. Leigh Whannell’s (one of the co-creators of the Saw franchise and heavily involved with the ongoing Insidious franchise) Upgrade is unafraid to wear the classic 80s science-fiction revenge clichés and technopunk atmosphere on its sleeve, but it also has a modern twist to it in the form of Stem, a new technological device (surgically inserted into the user’s body) that can work godly miracles such as giving back a quadriplegic individual the ability to walk.
Grey (Logan Marshall-Green a bit too animated and over-the-top in the role, but also able to sell the improvements to him with both physical excellence and some decent comedic lines commenting on everything from technology to the body horror he indirectly ends up frequently causing) is old-school; he prefers present-day vehicles instead of the futuristic automated ones his techie wife uses on her way and back to work. One day while out together delivering a repaired car for one of his only remaining clients, the infrastructure of the digital vehicle is assumed, set off course, and crashed, all essentially leading to the brutal murder of his wife and being left for dead.
Like I said, it’s a story you’re all probably familiar with but feels fresh thanks to Stem, which isn’t only used to bring back Grey’s mobility. The male sounding version of Alexa (voiced here by Simon Maiden to great effect at bringing out more humor and a sinister side working as a cautionary tale against the rise and control of technology) is able to take over Grey’s body completely with permission (Stem is essentially the voice in Grey’s head that no one is aware of as they communicate verbally), transforming the man into what functions as a hybrid of Batman and Spider-Man in terms of the unparalleled ability to sense incoming attacks and counter them in the most effective way possible.
The distinction between Grey and Grey while under control is methodically crafted, giving the body robotic movements and precise command over joints similar to much of the fight choreography in The Matrix franchise (this comes as less of a surprise once you remember that Leigh Whannell actually had a minor role in the series and is no doubt also drawing inspiration from working on that set alongside his own self-professed influences such as The Terminator), all stylishly flavored with swirling camera movements and an edgy hard rock soundtrack that fits with the gnarly brutality from every death on the checklist of generic villains.
Luckily Upgrade tends to jump from one impressively choreographed fight sequence to the next, as unless the narrative is taking a breather to analyze the mental toll that going from able-bodied and married to a quadriplegic failure (there’s actually a surprisingly emotional attempt at an intentional drug overdose stopped by computers), the story is as formulaic as it comes from the genre. I don’t think there’s a single person in the audience that will be unable to spot the big twist from the very beginning of the film, and although the script does seem aware of this by pulling one last swerve on viewers with a darkly appropriate ending, there is almost zero effort put into fleshing out these antagonists or the nefarious companies they operate under.
Upgrade zips along like a version of the original Blade Runner on speed (it even has a futuristic detective segment utilizing security camera footage) as the structure is as simple as tracking down each man responsible for the attacks one by one, but honestly, that’s all the movie needs. The modern-day twist of Stem is successfully able to refresh all of the tired tropes we have seen in similar experiences now for decades. Grey may be going through an inner struggle that questions whether he is truly in control or not as he accepts that the very thing he hates, technology, is his only option to independently seek out vengeance, but you have the free will to purchase a ticket for this movie, and you absolutely should. In another summer crowded with big-budget CGI blockbusters, Upgrade opts for practical effects and an 80s retro vibe while finding its own voice. Co-creating Saw and creating Insidious are huge accomplishments for a resume, but Upgrade is the best work of Leigh Whannell’s career and deserves to find an audience.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com