Film Review – Upgrade
The opening credits of Upgrade immediately immerse you in the world of its future. A woman speaking the production companies’ names along with sound waves accentuating the speech pattern sets the film apart from all others from the beginning. With Upgrade, writer and director Leigh Whannell has set himself apart from his pedigreed projects of Saw and Insidious. Those fans expecting an addition to the horror genre will be disappointed, but amazed and excited about what Whannell has accomplished with this film.
Upgrade follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a married man who fixes up old classic cars. He is resistant to about every technological advance that exists in this future, including the self-driving cars and virtual home assistants. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), works for a corporation involved in making those with disabilities whole again through new tech. After dropping off a classic car to a new buyer, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a hermit genius who runs one of the biggest tech companies in the world, Asha and Grey travel back home in a self-driving car. All hell breaks loose when the car crashes and they are dragged out by a group of men. These men kill Asha, and Grey is paralyzed from the neck down. Depressed by this life change, Eron approaches him with new tech that will make him whole again. Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden), a miniature robot of sorts, is implanted into Grey’s neck, taking over control of his motor functions. When Stem is on, Grey can move about like normal. When it is off, he is still paralyzed. Oh, and Stem talks to Grey kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man, but only Grey can hear it.
Stem is helping Grey not only move but also to solve his wife’s murder case. Working secretly with Stem, Grey tries to get further in the case than Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel). Tracking down the killers while having to keep Stem under wraps makes things complicated for Grey. Stem has a newly found function when Grey and Stem track down the first guy, killer fighting moves (both literally and figuratively). It is in this first encounter that the film takes off into one of the most fun films of the year.
To differentiate between when Grey is in control of his body and when Stem is, director Leigh Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio employ a different camera technique, one that mimics when a camera is filming when attached to the body. It gives Stem the appearance of fluidity and exactness as all of his movements are in focus, as opposed to the halting, normal body movements of someone fighting. Pair the camera technique with Logan Marshall-Green’s ability to be surprised with what his body is doing and each fight scene is filled with some great moves and the comedic timing of both Stem and Grey.
The future world of Upgrade is one where both old and new tech coexists. People still drive around normal cars, but the fortunate travel in leisure, driven by a computer. Some people are resistant to the tech, such as Grey, and those who embrace it, even to the point of it becoming its own race. Implantable tech has helped those who are disabled but have also armed those who think the tech in their bodies make them better than everyone else. It has gone far enough to have guns implanted in your forearm and barrel ending in your hand. The sleaziest character in Upgrade is Fisk (Benedict Hardie), and he has many tech implants on his body. Styled to remind you of the alt-right, Neo-Nazis, Fisk regards himself as and his fellow upgraded humans as superior to those with no tech. While Fisk is in danger from Grey’s revenge with Stem’s help, he is hesitant to kill Grey because of this beautiful tech that is inside of his body. The upgraded have become a race of their own.
Upgrade is not a film with a predictable ending, and the story that carries the audience to that ending is filled with unique plotlines, fantastic fight scenes, and quite a bit of comedy. While some of the fight scenes end with a gruesome death, violent enough to make me turn away for the final seconds, the film as a whole is not focused on violence or gore. It is a whodunit film in two different ways and with the added storyline of Stem. It is an unexpected, brilliant film that deserves to be viewed in a full theatre. I probably never have seen it except for this review opportunity, and I would have hated myself for not experiencing it on the big screen. Upgrade demands to be seen, and if film critics don’t get behind it (but they should), word-of-mouth will hopefully travel fast enough to produce the audience that it deserves.