Just because you haven’t got a budget to finance a small Latin American Country, doesn’t you can’t splurge on big ideas in your science fiction movie. Many movies over the years have managed to tackle thought provoking concepts set within a futuristic world on a shoestring budget and Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade is the latest to do just that.
Following in the footsteps of such diverse sci-fi fare as Cube, Equilibrium and Primer, Upgrade boots in the door immediately starts to make some noise and proves to be incredibly badass while it does it.
Grey is a technophobe and proud of it. Free of all the many implants that most people have taken for granted and openly dismissive of his wife’s ugly-ass self driving car (take note Elon Musk), Grey spends his time rebuilding classic cars for millionaire customers and revels in getting his hands dirty in a very hands-free world. One night, after dropping off a car to a reclusive client, Grey and his wife are car jacked by a gang of thugs whose attack leaves Grey paralyzed and his wife very dead indeed and the mechanic is forced to live a life utterly reliant on the tech he so distrusts. Coming extraordinarily close to rock bottom, salvation is at had in the form of STEM, a radical new invention by the odd young millionaire Grey was initially working for. It seems that once attached to your spinal cord, STEM can re-knit damaged tissue and basically reprogram your biology to make you faster and more agile than you’ve ever been. Sworn to keep his experimental operation a secret, Grey is startled (as you would be) when STEM starts communicating with him by sending vibrations to his inner ear and eventually the “two” of them uses Grey’s newly enhanced senses to start solving the mystery of his wife’s murder.
Thus Grey embarks on a rampage, tracking down the killers one by one and brutally and messily dispatching them by allowing STEM to take over his body and upgrading his reflexes. But things aren’t what they seem and as Grey murders his way up the food chain, he realises that his opponents have enhancements of their own (after all, not everybody has a gun implanted in their forearm) and that what happened to him was no random mugging.
As I mentioned earlier, writer/director Leigh Whannell is no stranger making a tiny budget stretch thanks to his time co-scripting and acting in James Wan’s Saw, but what he’s managed to pull off here is impressive. A twisty story, told with in-camera bells and whistles, Upgrade pulls out every trick in the book to drive it’s nasty little story home with the impact of a biologically altered punch. The fights are short, stylized and usually end with an act of retina expanding ultra-violence (the kitchen knife assisted beheading is nothing short of fucking spectacular) and even a scene of Grey walking from one side of the room to another is given an inhuman tweak by camera trickery and lead actor Logan Marshall-Green’s arresting physical performance (think Peter Weller’s walk in Robocop).
Marshall-Green, last seen transforming into something else in Prometheus and then transforming into dust in Spider-Man: Homecoming, gives a cool, throaty performance while apparently wearing Tom Hardy’s winter beard (in fact Upgrade and Venom aren’t actually that dissimilar now I think about it) and his energy – especially his panicked reactions when fighting off an assailant while not in control of his own body – carry the backbone of the film.
If there’s any problems here is that it’s low budget leaves you wishing you could have more of this brutal world, but then again, isn’t being left wanting more a rarity in this age of blockbusters regularly blowing past the two and a half hour mark?
Surely destined for cult greatness, it’s going to be interesting to see what Whannell does next (Blumhouse’s Invisible Man reboot is next up for the director) and more importantly, considering the considerable visual flair he shows here, HOW he does it.
But for now, this low key, super violent throwback is a nice reminder of the dark, synth scored, down beat movies of the 80’s, and in this respect Upgrade is enjoyably analogue.