Director: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson
Do you fondly recall the late 80’s/early 90’s boom in pulpy, violent sci-fi thrillers? Leigh Whannell sure does. The creator of Saw and Insidious returns here with a terrific ode to these pictures of yesteryear, employing many of their tics without resorting to cheap-shot homage or empty nostalgia. Whannell rides their coattails, sure, but he does so with the intention of adding to their number rather than simply paying lip service.
Logan Marshall-Green stars as mechanic Grey Trace, happily married to Asha (Melanie Vallejo). Its the near future, and computer automation and synthetic body enhancements are becoming commonplace. Grey is suspicious of such ‘improvements’. We meet him fixing up his Firebird; emblematic of his preference for old things and the human touch.
After dropping off a car to computer wunderkid Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), Grey and Asha’s horrendous-looking sci-fi car malfunctions, crashing them in an underpass shantytown. Here, they are set upon by a group of hoodlums. Asha is killed and Grey is left paralysed.
However, Eron and his tech company Vessel have a solution; a state-of-the-art implant that allows Grey full use of his body again… and much, much more. The system, Stem, talks to Grey (voiced by Simon Maiden), sending soundwaves directly to his eardrums, and seems keen to help him settle the score with his attackers.
Imagine if Jarvis had bodily control over Tony Stark and also was a sociopath. That’s kind of the predicament Grey soon finds himself in, hiding his John Wick reflexes from investigating detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) while he goes galivanting around town on a quest for violent revenge. In the process, Upgrade adopts a tone of inappropriate but exceedingly effective humour, bringing to mind the Simon Barrett penned The Guest from a few years ago.
If that movie stirred your spaghetti then Upgrade will provide similar kicks, albeit with a far more nihilistic edge. Whannell – whose directorial debut Insidious Chapter 3 impressed with some effective scares – here ups the ante. Upgrade is delivered with confidence. The action scenes particularly run at a slick pace, adopting some nifty camera moves that appear synchronised to Marshall-Green’s movements, working in compliment to the sense of automated motion. At other times, Whannell prefers a tableux, favouring still compositions. The lighting throughout is elegant, enhancing the aesthetic value of the picture.
For his part, Marshall-Green provides an exceptionally nuanced and physical performance. When Stem has control of him, his movements and posture carry the precision of a trained dancer. Marshall-Green deserves credit for what he brings to the film. He also makes Grey very likeable, something which proves vital as his actions push the story into increasingly darker territories.
It is here that Whannell’s past in horror – and his horror fandom – comes to the fore. Upgrade nods to the visceral gratuity of the likes of Videodrome and Tetsuo: The Iron Man and it is pitted with scenes of graphic violence, or its results. There’s a gooeyness to the bloodshed. This is the guy who started Jigsaw’s motor running, after all.
Subtext here is hard to miss. Whannell appears to share Grey’s paranoiac standpoint. Technological advances that can rebuild lives shattered by paralysis are marvels, to be sure, but Whannell’s suspicion is more keenly directed at corporate invasions of privacy; the information that companies piggyback from us on a daily basis. Eron never mentions to Grey that Stem will act as a voice inside his head (for good reason). It is the invasiveness of it that Grey finds shocking. In Whannell’s society, everyone has ID chips in their teeth and drones keep a watchful eye from above. Privacy and autonomy are rare and go hand-in-hand with the criminal. To go unnoticed is to appear guilty.
Stem also works as a cute (but not really cute) variation on the old multiple personality line. Having a computer operating your limbs is just another way of exploring the idea of disassociative disorders. But here is tied inextricably to the aforementioned removal of privacy. Fear of losing control is at the heart of Upgrade; from losing the ability to move your limbs to having that ability commanded by another.
Judging from its sketchy distribution here in the UK, Upgrade is likely going to pass a lot of people by and perhaps not out of choice. That’s a shame. With its graphic violence, skewed humour and unashamedly downbeat ending, it has ‘cult’ stamped all over it, but that needn’t necessarily be the case. Whannell may by playing to his own tastes here, but they are tastes that will resonate, and with his super-humans trading blows, he’s also tapped into many tropes of the comic book movie. Upgrade is, essentially, an origin story. This one might work best as a one-shot, though; a sequel doesn’t seem entirely necessary.
That is not to say Upgrade wouldn’t be worth it, rather that Whannell covers everything he needs to just fine in this one. This is a riot of trashy, pulpy entertainment to file next to your favourite Paul Verhoeven classic. Lean, mean and worth your time.