Going into this weekend three new releases were on hand for viewers to enjoy, but the one flying under a lot of radars is a new science fiction action flick called “Upgrade”. Written, directed and produced by Leigh Whannell, the writer of several modern horror series including entries in the “Insidious” and “Saw” franchises. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the film as it stars a still unproven actor and was made for only $3-$5 million but if there’s one thing “Upgrade” teaches us its that choosing substance over style can make for a pretty decent sci-fi experience. Let’s dig deeper into this budget project. This is my review of “Upgrade”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Upgrade” stars Logan Marshall-Green in possibly his most notable role to date as Grey Trace, a technophobic mechanic who works on antique cars for high-class clients. Grey is joined by his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in dropping off one such vehicle to tech innovator Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). While there Grey is introduced to Keen’s newest invention, a gadget called STEM that he claims will allow for the improvement of anything it’s connected to including a human being. On their way home Grey and Asha are attacked by a group of upgraded assailants who cripple Grey and kill Asha. Left a quadriplegic, Grey is offered a chance at a normal life as the test subject for STEM which returns his motor functions and provides him with a self-contained AI only he can hear and respond to. Now upgraded and seeking revenge, Grey uses STEM’s advanced programming to hunt down the four men who attacked him and Asha but soon finds out that STEM is capable of much more than restoring mobility. As Grey dives deeper down the rabbit hole the lines between human and machine are blurred, blood is shed and a battle for control over Grey’s humanity wages within.
I have to say that “Upgrade” is probably one of the most impressive movies I’ve seen in 2018 so far if you’re considering expectations versus the final product. Leigh Whannell had to make due with minimal financial resources to get this film off the ground and somehow, he managed to create a futuristic world just as believable and immersive as any other big budget sci-fi epic but on a smaller more manageable scale. From vehicle designs to the details behind the upgrades of both the villains and the protagonist, “Upgrade” feels like a natural progression for humanity rather than a simple fantasy and leans more on simple effects and small-scale CGI rather than overpowering the story with colors and odd designs. As I said in the opening, this is a movie that balances substance over style and as a result we got one of the most grounded science fiction films I’ve seen in years. While there have been many genre movies that have used CGI to spectacular effect, like 2018’s other underappreciated gem “Annihilation”, “Upgrade” is on the other end of the spectrum providing a much more believable future Earth without sacrificing imagination.
It helps that the film sports some great performances from throughout its cast. Logan Marshall-Green, who has only had minor big screen success, proves he can carry a film on his shoulders by leading the charge as Grey, a convincingly technophobic man who turns to technology to help get his life back. Marshall-Green is not only a charming and believable hero, he’s someone we can both root for and relate to as he becomes consumed by revenge but still seeks to hold on to the threads of humanity he has left. Marshall-Green is complimented by Harrison Gilbertson’s socially awkward reclusive tech genius Eron, Betty Gabriel’s straight-laced cop Cortez who pursues Grey in his search for vengeance, and even the main baddy among the assailants, Benedict Hardie’s Fisk, is a memorable foe as a super advanced warrior now more machine than man. Simon Maiden plays the voice of STEM and provides a soft, soothing vocal performance reminiscent of modern devices like Alexa yet somehow provides personality for the program that helps Grey become mobile again and serves as his sidekick/partner in his quest for revenge. Even Melanie Vallejo’s short-lived performance as Grey’s wife Asha is charming and memorable which is pretty neat to see since I remember Vallejo from my younger days when she got her start on “Power Rangers”. Good to see her not only excelling in her career but proving she can carry even a minor role with memorable charm and charisma.
Aside from a charming cast and a respectable less-is-more approach to filmmaking “Upgrade” is also just plain fun to watch. Expert camera work is used to capture the intensity of each violent, blood-soaked scene especially when STEM takes over for Grey in battle sequences and the camera moves with Grey’s body. It’s so fluid and unique in its execution that it grabbed my attention and kept me wanting more from the first fight to the last. It adds a special something to each fight scene that brings you right into the action and helps define the shift from Grey’s incapable combat skills to the more refined, robotic and frankly insane fighting style programmed into STEM. It makes for some awesome action sequences that perfectly capture the spirit of this sci-fi adventure. It’s the one area where Whannell chose to add some style to the substance and it works by giving “Upgrade” some neat flare and eye catching visual appeal meshing camera movements with choreography and some light-hearted dialogue to make each action piece the full package.
Then there’s the deeper elements of “Upgrade” that make it not only a fun movie but a small-budget epic with something to say. “Upgrade” provides a unique look into the moral integrity of humanity over the robotic mentality of machines especially with the contrast between Grey and STEM on how to handle Grey’s search for revenge. This conflict eventually makes its way into the story as a more clearly presented issue in the third act but it’s a moral dilemma sprinkled throughout the film that always seems to cast a shadow over the rest of the action. From Eron’s isolated personality to Grey’s change of heart from technophobic handyman to test subject for a revolutionary AI and even officer Cortez’s struggle to do her job when the world has turned to drones as the primary source of investigative policing, “Upgrade” proves to be a cautionary sci-fi story wrapped in a solid package of action, body horror and dark humor. Who would have guessed that a small budget film made by the guy behind “Saw” and “Insidious” would turn out to be something like this?
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Now I loved “Upgrade”. But, even with all the praise I’m sprinkling in this review it’s hard to ignore the most glaring problem in this movie and that’s its tremendously cliché story and setup. There’s no denying that when you strip away all the bells and whistles “Upgrade” is basically a, to use a horrible pun, upgraded version of every other revenge flick we’ve seen since the beginning of cinema. Think “Death Wish” with more advanced technology pretty much. There’s a lot that redeems “Upgrade” from being a simple copycat film, but it does lean heavily on a familiar narrative that forces the main character into a situation of helplessness only to have something cross his path that gives him the urge, or even the edge, to get his vengeance. It’s also the second film in a month’s time to bring to light a cliché that has gained a lot of mainstream criticism out of the blue since “Deadpool 2” utilized the same sin, a phenomenon called “fridging” where a protagonist is only called into action due to the death of their female counterpart.
That said though the key here is how “Upgrade” manages its obvious cliches and to that I give the film credit. It can be argued that these days it’s not just about original ideas but how filmmakers transform tired ideas into something more unique and fresh. Whannell and his crew took a familiar concept and setup and applied it to something that feels completely original. The more I thought about it the more I appreciated how Whannell was able to take the revenge plot idea and adapt it into a fun, gritty science fiction film that still had its own identity despite a certain lack of creativity in its basic narrative. That takes a keen eye for storytelling to pull off and despite its basic flaws “Upgrade” still shines as a great example of what can be accomplished when filmmakers fully embrace their imagination even as it relates to the same old song and dance.
I admit “Upgrade” deserved a lot more respect from me going into it and maybe that’s why I’m giving it so much love. It’s a science fiction, action, body horror film that never takes itself too seriously but never looses sight of what it has to say. Great performances bring the characters to life and slick camera work and a focus on substance over style make it one of the most engaging and thrilling sci-fi and action mashup films of the decade so far. There’s so much to love here from the writing and design to the cinematography and choreography that I couldn’t look away even during the slowest segments of the movie. It’s captivating and entertaining in all the best ways and shows that Leigh Whannell deserves much more credit than he gets as a writer and filmmaker. Most of all though “Upgrade” somehow manages to up the ante in a genre that has been nothing short of astounding the last few years by skimping on the CGI and color in favor of a darker and more natural presentation. It’s lack of a budget forced the filmmakers to think outside the box and truly commit to making this an immersive, enthralling and enjoyable experience that felt futuristic and fun without necessarily being flashy and eye-popping. It’s a cool, no-holds-barred thrill ride from start to finish and in my humble opinion the filmmakers not only succeeded in their mission to create a good budget sci-fi movie, but they surpassed those expectations tenfold.