Synopsis – 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.
My Take – While one would have thought that following their stint at last year’s Academy Awards, thanks to their Oscar-winning film, Get Out, Blumhouse Productions would be motivated towards working on more awards hungry films, but clearly we had a wrong idea. As their latest film is exactly what brought them fame in the first place – an entertaining stripped-down genre flick with a small budget and a big idea.
Helmed by writer/director Leigh Whannell, a major Hollywood player after his long collaboration with James Wan resulted in the Saw and Insidious franchises, who here brings the exact kind of B film that promises to be a neat potboiler as well as provides enough sci-fi speculation and bone-crunching genre thrills to satisfy our expectations, but different enough to keep us engaged. Recalling 1980s science-fiction revenge films like RoboCop, this one too delves into the dark and gritty nuances of superhero films, only this time with revenge on its mind, and yet somehow manages to be so much more albeit some minor flaws.
Set in the near-future where driver-less cars are elite status symbols and most every human walks around with some sort of digital augmentation device on their body, the story follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an old school mechanic, who loves restoring vintage cars and is horrified by everything that’s related to high technology. Happily married to Asha (Melanie Vallejo), who runs a robotics firm, his life takes a drastic turn when Asha’s fully automated design car malfunctions and crashes in the low-income neighborhood where Grey grew up.
But before the paramedics can arrive, a group of unknown assailants shoots them dead without provocation. While Asha dies, Grey survives with a severed spinal cord leaving him a quadriplegic. However, his latest benefactor, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a billionaire genius prodigy, offers him a solution in the form of his latest invention known as the STEM, an artificially intelligent microchip that functions as a superior brain so the paralyzed Grey can lead a normal life again. Lost and frustrated that case Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) keeps coming up empty on her leads, Grey accepts Eron’s proposal, and decides to use his newly heightened computational intelligence, which is able to massively expand his capacities for physical and mental response, in order to avenge his wife’s murder. And when a situation proves too tough, he lets the AI (voiced by Simon Maiden) takeover.
What could have been a so-so episode of Black Mirror is delivered with bloody glee by director Whannell, whose premise itself is your basic revenge tale. But what separates the film from falling into the same tropes as the revenge films before it, is the creative use of its sci-fi world, and twists and turns leading into the climax. While the first act does a lot of rote place-setting, with Grey and Asha woodenly calling each other husband and wife to make sure the audience knows that they’re married, the film really picks up steam once Grey gets his new lease on life. The actual beats of the mystery are less important than the dynamic between Grey and STEM, as STEM becomes both the angel and devil on his shoulder, the duo switching between straight man and loose cannon depending on the situation. Being that he’s just a mechanic, there’s no hidden past with Special Forces training, Stem becomes a sort of alternate personality.
With its host’s permission the AI gains full control of all motor functions, relegating Grey to a submissive viewer like us. This reality leads to some wild scenes with hilarious physical comedy born from the juxtaposition of elite fisticuffs and an equally surprised, disgusted, and helpless face. Grey’s relationship with STEM grows ever more complicated in the film’s finale, as the two continually negotiate the lengths to which STEM acts for him. Is STEM just doing Grey’s bidding, or is Grey’s body being hijacked for some higher purpose? The answers are suitably dark, but the film’s sheer energy and the strength of its concept do more than enough to elevate this revenge picture into something refreshing and eminently watchable. Give Marshall-Green credit because he must separate facial expression from bodily movement, his straight-backed robotic hitch a thing of beauty as he wreaks havoc while begging victims to back down. Here, director and screenwriter Leigh Whannell also conjures a vision of the near future in which technology’s pervasive influence has become the norm.
We are on the cusp of surpassing the human-machine boundary, ushering in an age of hybridity and cyborgs, thereby deliberately recalling earlier films like The Terminator and the underrated Van Damme vehicle, Cyborg, both aesthetically and conceptually. But it manages to avoid feeling trite or pretentiously retro. This is at least partly because it responds to the late 20th- and 21st-century fascination with computational technologies and AI in an original fashion. Earlier human-robot hybrid films have often fantasied the physical robot body as the source of spectacle and action, this film, though, re-imagines this transformation at an interior, nano-technological level, focusing on invisible bio-mechanical and biochemical apparatuses rather than exterior prostheses.
Sure, it’s got your dime-a-dozen Blade Runner cyberpunk debris (holograms, drones flying over city streets), but production designer Felicity Abbott infuses these objects with an organic sensibility that furthers the film’s thematic intermixing of the natural and artificial. Cars, computer screens, and surgical theaters are studded with honeycomb, and triangular patterns cascade like leaves down car windshields. This feels futuristic in a way we’ve rarely seen before, especially when contrasted with the down-and-dirty, modular technology of the criminal underworld Grey infiltrates in his search for revenge – including palm-implanted guns and razor-sharp nanites you can sneeze into someone’s sinus cavity, ripping them up from the inside.
Nevertheless, the film is most entertaining during its action scenes, which are bloody, violent and ruthless, with an edgy sense of humor. In particular, Grey’s banter with STEM is amusing and often witty, lending the film levity and a tone of self-deprecating seriousness. Director Whannell also wisely underplays his hand when it comes to FX, which is a mix of practical and digital. He throws in moments of gore but waits to foist them upon us. Each of Grey’s fights when he tracks down his assailants’ ends in bloody fashion, especially the first one. All are second and third act kills that only happen once the film takes a turn. Stefan Duscio’s cinematography is crisply lensed and Andy Canny’s editing is ragged and kinetic, and together they make Grey’s increasingly gory exploits riveting to behold.
However, I personally believe the screenplay could have been more nuanced, and taken more risks to explore and develop its ideas. At its core is an interesting premise, but director Whannell does not do enough to distinguish it or its execution in more unique ways. This tendency also applies to the characters. Unsurprisingly, Marshall-Green has the most material to work with in developing Grey, but the rest of the cast and characters end up either having too little to do (Betty Gabriel) or conjuring performances that draw too heavily on well-worn tropes (Harrison Gilbertson). These are lapses, or perhaps more accurately lost opportunities, so that when the narrative arrives at its seemingly inexorable twist, a sense of predictability nevertheless lingers despite the film’s visual flair. Thankfully, Marshall-Green, being one of the most impressive young actors around, due largely to the high quality of the projects he picks, here he offers yet another commanding and intense lead performance, eschewing the sentimentality that many actors would have brought to the role. On the whole, ‘Upgrade’ is an action-packed sci-fi horror thriller that’s both clever and original enough to thoroughly enjoy.
Directed – Leigh Whannell
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes