“Upgrade”- Movie Review
Leigh Whannell has made a decent name for himself over the years, having built a steady career as an actor, a screenwriter, and a producer. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen or liked everything he’s done, his creative involvement in the Saw and Insidious franchises proves he has an interesting vision. His newest venture, Upgrade, may not be his debut as a director (he’s already made that with Insidious: Chapter 3, which he also wrote), but something about it seemed refreshingly unique.
Set in a near-future, Upgrade tells the story of Grey Trace (played by Tom Hardy’s Hollywood doppelganger, Logan Marshall-Green), an old-school mechanic whose life takes a turn for the worst when his wife is murdered and he’s left paralyzed. In the midst of his grief, a visit from tech innovator Eron Keen (played by Dane DeHaan’s Hollywood doppelganger, Harrison Gilbertson) offers a glimmer of relief. Keen puts an interesting offer on the table- a chance to undergo an experimental procedure in which a supercomputer chip called STEM is planted into his brain, thus allowing the program to take control of Grey’s body. Grey agrees to the “upgrade”. Once he gets back on his feet, he’s ready to find the men who killed his wife, and along the way he finds himself unprepared for all that STEM can do.
If you’re feeling a tad burned out from the big blockbusters and would like to see something outside the mainstream, then Upgrade is a nice fit for you. It’s a film that never tries to act bigger than it actually is. It’s not a reboot or a remake. Not once does it feel like an attempt to jump-start a new franchise. It’s an independent film in every sense of the word, and it’s beyond refreshing.
It plays with themes familiar to the science fiction and body horror genres- such as the conflict between man and machine and how much control over oneself you’re willing to sacrifice- without being preachy and without over-complicating the story for the sake of hammering in the message. Whannell conveys these elements through some truly creative visual beats, like how people have guns fused into their arms and the style in which the action sequences are filmed. Its low-budget appeal adds an extra layer of grit and realism to its world, thus giving it more of an edge.
Everything works well on a visual level, though what impressed me the most is Logan Marshall-Green’s performance. He’s one of those actors who pops up in a lot of stuff (Prometheus, Devil, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Invitation) and yet I can never remember his name. It’s a shame because like in his previous work, he proves he has the acting chops. He’s one hundred percent believable as this average Joe who’s thrust into a dark situation. His emotional range- all the fear, uncertainty, grief and even the dark humor- comes through very naturally. Most importantly, he sells the idea of the mind/body split. Once his character’s body is under STEM’s control, Marshall-Green adopts a precise, robotic type of physicality. At the same time, from the neck up, he’s completely reactionary, constantly being shocked and horrified with what his body is doing. It makes for good decent comedy, especially the fact that STEM is more like an ultra-violent HAL 9000 than a helpful entity.
I was initially disappointed with what I thought was going to be the ending. But sure enough, the story pulls a fast one, delivering a satisfying twist. Besides that, I only have two issues with the film. First off, I wish the secondary characters had more development. There’s a cop character in here- played by actress Betty Gabriel- who’s written as the typical cop determined to catch Grey. While her acting is fine, you don’t know a single thing about her character. Grey’s wife is nice and smart, but personality-wise she’s a bit stale. Secondly, the first act of the film gets off to a slow start. Once STEM is implanted and Grey is able to do all these cool things, the film gains momentum.
With all that said, is Upgrade worth going to see in the theater? Sure. It’s a cool indie sci-fi film with fun action and creative ideas that are realized as fully as its budget allows. It takes a while for it to pick up the pace, but once things get interesting, the energy picks up. It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s a very good one, and something that definitely deserves a chance.
Cosmic Grade- 3.7/5 Stars