Upgrade: Limited Edition Review
During its first few minutes, Upgrade (2018) unapologetically announces its many genre influences, so much so that you can almost tick off the plot points as they appear. There’s the reluctant hero with the perfect life. The terrible tragedy that causes the hero to seek out vengeance. And the eccentric genius who may just be able to help him do that. It might seem like writer-director Leigh Whannell is tiredly treading old ground by revisiting all of these revenge/action tropes, but really he uses them to his advantage, reworking them throughout his story to create a fresh slice of sci-fi weirdness that’s intriguing, suspenseful, and (most importantly) very fun.
Set in the near-future, Upgrade shows a world that is built around technology and the digital realm, everyone relying on widgets and gadgets to help them breeze through their day. Everyone that is except for Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) – a man who prefers the analog world of playing records and fixing car engines, much to the dismay of his wife (Melanie Vallejo). It seems Grey doesn’t have a choice in the matter though after a terrible accident leaves him at the mercy of the very tech he hates, the Siri-like voice-activated appliances keeping his life ticking on slowly and painfully, even when he wants to clock out early.
Falling into a state of despair and boiling with rage at the police who are no closer to catching the culprits behind the accident, Grey suddenly finds help from a young genius (Harrison Gilbertson) who offers him the chance of a new implant called STEM – an implant that can rebuild him into the man he was before, and then some. With a new lease of life and STEM’s digital voice (Simon Maiden) nattering away inside his head like a useful commentary track, Grey starts to realise the benefits of this new technology, using STEM to seek out the people who took everything away from him.
It’s when STEM is introduced that Whannell really lets loose and has some fun with his idea, the one-liners between Grey and STEM flying as thick and fast as any other buddy comedy, albeit one where we can’t actually see the second character. Mixing this humour in with those touches of sci-fi, Whannell elevates his revenge story above the usual tropes, turning this into a truly suspenseful and thrilling tale as Grey slowly unravels the mystery around his accident. But it is when STEM gets to unleash his full abilities during the film’s first big fight scene that Upgrade reveals its true potential – a moment that Whannell knows will play big and which he takes the time to build up to. And it works exceptionally well. Exploding onto the screen in a flurry of stunning choreography, slick direction, and lightning fast camera moves, it’s an astounding sequence that is exciting to watch as it is impressive, STEM proving to be a more than effective fighter when Grey finds himself in over his head. It’s gory, it’s dark, and it’s also incredibly funny, mostly because of Marshall-Green’s hilarious and horrified expression as Grey watches his limbs move of their own accord. And if Upgrade hadn’t grabbed you this far into the plot, I can guarantee that after this scene, you’ll be positively hooked.
As Grey starts to get the hang of using STEM as an instrument of vengeance, these riotous fight sequences become even more extraordinary, cinematographer Stefan Duscio shooting each one using different vibrant hues, the reds and blues lending Upgrade a pleasing neon-noirish tone that’s reminiscent of 80s action films. Whannell’s lively direction ensures that we never tire of these moments too, those amazing camera moves perfectly complementing every punch, kick and broken limb, the camera often tilting and turning to match Grey’s actions – a remarkable technique that both Whannell and Duscio talk about during their interviews on this Blu-ray disc release.
However, it is the physicality of these fight sequences that makes them particularly impressive, Chris Weir’s fantastic choreography expertly translating the idea of A.I. manipulating a man’s body, the slick, almost mechanical movements of Grey capturing the efficiency and ruthlessness of STEM, who only has one goal in ‘mind’. That we can always tell whether it’s Grey or STEM in control at any given time is complete credit to Marshall-Green’s incredible portrayal, his ability to switch from the natural mannerisms of Grey to the controlled ones of STEM astounding to see, and often terrifying as things begin to reach a dangerous point of no return. Yet Marshall-Green is also able to handle the more human elements of the story as well, adding real gravitas to those emotional moments (especially earlier on in the narrative) and making us fully understand why Grey would risk so much.
While those action scenes are the main selling point of the film, Whannell knows not to lose sight of the narrative at the heart of this, particularly the bigger ideas that he knows will make this stand out from other sci-fis. Exploring underlying issues around the reliability of technology and the ethical dilemmas that come with it (like tracking), Whannell turns Upgrade into a film very much related to our present, as well as one that highlights problems that may appear further down the line (such as tech causing widespread job losses, an issue Grey brings up when he’s first introduced to STEM).
Indeed, Upgrade’s story might be set in the future (albeit an unspecified year), but there is something oddly recognisable about it all, Whannell choosing to look at a time and place that could be just around the corner, the driverless cars, police drones and touchscreen-filled homes really the only things different from our present. It lends the whole of Upgrade a terrifying realism that makes it stick in your mind long after seeing this, Grey’s world looking more and more like our dystopian future with every VR headset and computerised implant that we see.
That Whannell’s narrative breezes by so quickly is credit to his excellent script and direction, the speed with which the ending comes around almost taking you by surprise. And yet, it feels like this could have been more expansive at times, many of the other characters left on the sidelines by that frantic plot. The rich genius who designs the STEM implant - and who is so obviously modelled on Elon Musk - plays out as a mere caricature designed for laughs rather than a fully formed person, his eccentric nature and inability to talk to others a tired trope that Whannell would have been wise to move away from. But it is Betty Gabriel’s police detective that is most underused, the role not giving her much to do beyond a few scenes between her and Grey – moments that feel unnecessarily rushed and which offer little tension to the overall story.
However, these flaws are all easily forgiven by the time we reach the film’s brilliant climax, Whannell pulling all of those sci-fi and revenge elements together to deliver a more than satisfying finale, while also unexpectedly turning this into a terrifying horror. Ending on a note that is as emotional as it is shocking, Whannell ensures that Upgrade is a film you’ll want to revisit as soon as you possibly can – something that makes this Limited Edition Blu-ray release a must-buy. Seeing those fight sequences and the incredible visuals in such high quality makes this worth the price alone, but getting to hear how this was made via extensive interviews with the film’s production team is a great bonus. Yet it is Whannell’s interview and insightful commentary track that makes this version of the film the one you should invest in, his discussion of his initial ideas and scriptwriting process something that any budding filmmaker should listen to.
A futuristic, sci-fi revenge story seems like an unusual choice for the writer responsible for some of the most interesting horror films of recent years (Saw (2004), Dead Silence (2007), Insidious (2010) and, if we’re looking ahead, The Invisible Man (2020)). And yet, there’s no mistaking that this is a Leigh Whannell film, the suspense, darkness and humour of his other stories very much present here, the horror he’s so well known for gradually emerging as Upgrade hurtles towards its chilling ending. With an appealing 80s look and Jed Palmer’s ominous futuristic score to match, this is a smart, thrilling sci-fi that is more than elevated by Whannell’s dynamic direction, as well as those fantastic fight sequences, gritty practical effects, and Marshall-Green’s amazing physical performance. Watch. Be blown away. And watch again.