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.
After his wife is murdered and he has his neck broken by a group of ex-marines, Upgrade’s protagonist Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) gets a top-secret and illegal implant in his spine to help him walk again. However, it turns out that this implant can do far more than just make him walk; it makes him into a superhuman with lightening quick reflexes and an unbelievable intellect. With his newfound powers, Grey set out to find his wife’s killers and wreak his vengeance.
If that sounds a bit like Robocop, that’s because it is a bit like Robocop. However, Upgrade is more than just a rehash of the 80s sci-fi classic. A lot more.
The similarities with Robocop pretty much end after the initial premise. Grey isn’t a cop, he’s a mechanic, and his vengeance must be carried out in secret. Rather than working with the police, Grey must work underneath their radar. No one can even know he has the implant and is no longer disabled. This sets up a wonderful second plotline, which sees him dodge accusations of murder while simultaneously bringing about the justice that the law cannot. It’s a double cat and mouse game: Grey looks for his killers, as do the police, but they also are looking for him, though they don’t realise it. After all, how could a quadriplegic do anything to harm anybody, never mind a bunch of ex-soldiers?
The film’s aesthetic also has very little to do with Robocop, and instead much more closely mirrors Blade Runner. There’s a disco vibe to the colour palate, and despite being set in a far more hopeful future than Blade Runner’s, the majority of the film takes place in seedy back alleys filled with bright yellow and purple lights, and containing people alienated by the world they live in. Fortunately, like with the similarities to Robocop, this Blade Runner aesthetic is not overdone, and the film never feels like a rip off. Rather, it pays homage to the classic while simultaneously being something original.
It is this homage style of filmmaking that really defines Upgrade. Aside from the two films already mentioned, Upgrade also riffs on plenty of other films, weaving tiny parts of them into its fabric. There’s a good deal of Cronenberg-esque practical effects – some of which are so brilliant that they made the audience applaud – and even an Ex Machina style pondering about machine consciousness. If you were to give Upgrade enough thought, you might even say that it acts as a metaphor for psychosis, and where to lay blame when someone acts outside of their own control.
To top all of this off, Upgrade also has some truly hilarious moments. As the Stem implant becomes more accustomed to being embedded in a body, it begins talking to Grey, and Grey talks back to it. The interactions between the very human Grey and the hyper-logical Stem are bizarre, and often provide the film’s funniest moments. They are also amongst the most original scenes in the movie, and help cement it as its own movie, rather than just a neat tapestry of sci-fi classics.
What makes this whole endeavour even more impressive is the fact that it was done on a budget of five-million-dollars. Though it doesn’t look quite as nice as Blade Runner, it looks damn nice. The fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed, and the whole cast put on great performances. Dollar-for-dollar, this might be one of the best looking and sounding films ever.
I’ll just come out and say it: Upgrade is essentially a perfect sci-fi movie. It pays tribute to previous sci-fi greats while never ripping them off, has plenty of original content, and looks absolutely incredible. Add into that a great sense of humour and some wonderfully executed action and gore, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for one killer movie.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor