Science-fiction and Leigh Whannell, the writer behind the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchise, doesn’t sound like the smoothest of mixtures, but this is a risk that pays off.
“Upgrade”, written and directed by Whannell and produced by Blumhouse Productions, is an attempt to harken back to films such as “The Terminator”, making a thorough sci-fi world on a budget. From the very first moments of his film, Whannell makes good on his promise.
Set in the near future, the world of “Upgrade” looks a lot like ours. The already-expanding skylines of modern cities are complemented by the likes of smart homes and self-driving cars, a simple touch that does wonders in fleshing out the near-future setting where Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) works as an auto-mechanic skeptical of modern technology. This point-of-view is only strengthened when he and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) go to visit Grey’s employer, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who shows off bold new technology to both of them.
Shaken by their meeting, Grey tries to get his mind off of it when he rides home with Asha, but something causes their self-driving car to crash, and a gang- all of whose hands have been converted into guns- murders Asha and leaves Grey a quadriplegic. Grey, heartbroken and withdrawn, plans to take his own life when Eron offers him a way out: a chip, known as the STEM, that will restore his neural pathways to allow his body to function normally again.
Grey signs the deal immediately and goes to find his wife’s murderer, but discovers something else instead: the STEM has sentience, meaning it can speak to him and take over his motor functions with his permission. Instead of freaking out, Grey decides to partner with the STEM and goes to the underbelly of his city, while Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) becomes suspicious that something’s going on with Grey.
There’s a lot going on in the story of “Upgrade”, and in other hands, it could’ve been a complete disaster. However, Whannell’s script makes Grey’s investigation a total blast. It’s tight, compact, and features quite a bit of twist and turns. As a mixture of science fiction and noir that doesn’t feel like a “Blade Runner” rip-off, it also throws some dark comedy into the mix.
The banter between Grey and STEM (voiced with a deceptively expressive monotone by Simon Maiden) is fantastic, though most of that really comes down to Marshall-Green’s performance. Whannell has described him as the “greatest special effect” on the film, and that’s absolutely true.
Having to essentially turn his motor functions on and off, Marshall-Green gives that all he’s got. A sequence later in the film where the STEM is being shut down remotely and his body stops working piece by piece is a great showcase of his physical talent. That’s not to say he can’t handle the emotional beats, because Marshall-Green is a strong emotional anchor.
In terms of other performances, Gabriel plays the archetypical detective with great flair that shows exactly why she got so much acclaim for her role in “Get Out”, while Gilbertson is creepy in all the right ways as Eron.
Yet, I’d be remiss in saying the main attraction wasn’t seeing how the STEM makes Grey move. At several points in the film, Grey allows the STEM to “take over”, which ends up leading to some- without any exaggeration- game changing fight sequences.
The camera motion tracks Marshall-Green, who movies robotically mostly without the aid of special effects in a flurry of fast-paced fisticuffs and gore that never stops being awesome. As the film starts to amp up its questions of what the STEM can do and what its intentions may be, the suspense is through the roof.
By the time the bold final twist comes around, “Upgrade” gave me legitimate goosebumps. In the span of 95 minutes it graduated from simple tech thriller to a near-operatic struggle between man and machine. Many jaws dropped at the Stateside Theater where it premiered, and there was even more applause, at what Whannell had accomplished on a simple budget.
This film may not have the dense themes of “Blade Runner” or the majesty of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but it offers something else in return that few sci-fi films can: originality and clarity of vision. It won’t be surprising to see “Upgrade” takes up its rightful status as a cult film in the coming years.
Even if it doesn’t, it was a pleasure to spend some time in Leigh Whannell’s twisted vision of future society. The low-budget feature just got an “Upgrade”.
Running Time: 95 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Score: 5/5 stars