For the first 30 minutes, Upgrade plays like the worst kind of modern day sci-fi film or TV series usually funded by Netflix (this isn’t) that looks as uninspiring as it is unoriginal. The bland, non-descript ‘futuristic’ designs are all there, lit by a mass of neon lights that are used to tell us it must be a world more advanced than our own and ridiculous, budget looking cars fail to convince this is Elon Musk's vision of the future. So far so bad.
Just when it seems the remaining hour is set to test the outer limits of your patience, it suddenly diverts from being a by-the-numbers sci-fi bore into an amusing b-movie buddy flick propelled by exciting action sequences. The mediocre plot, characters and storyline never fade away, but Leigh Whannell’s Blumhouse funded film becomes extremely watchable.
Upgrade opens curiously enough using a robotic voice to introduce the titles rather than traditional text. It’s a little confusing but nonetheless intriguing, although that quickly evaporates once the actual film begins. We are introduced to mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who is an analog guy living in a digital world. He doesn’t trust all these self-driving cars and printable pizzas (seriously) because he believes in good old fashion manual labour.
When masked criminals seize upon Grey and his forgettable wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) after a car accident, she is murdered and Grey turned into a quadriplegic. A strange, boy-genius called Eron (played atrociously by Harrison Gilbertson) offers to give him back his mobility by implanting a new STEM device into his body. This is where the fun starts to kick in as Grey learns that not only can STEM speak to him but also make him stronger and faster than ever.
You can guess where it goes next, and the bad guys who ruined his life are hunted down and picked off one-by-one. Grey is also being pursued by a suspicious cop played by Betty Gabriel (Get Out) although this only serves to set up a convoluted end to the film. Robocop, Death Wish and The Terminator all spring to mind and Whannell's history of penning both the Saw and Insidious franchises shows you where his head is at. The violence is gory, brutal and excessive fun, also recalling director S. Craig Zahler’s exploitation tendencies that go way overboard with glorious results.
The likelihood of anyone caring about Grey’s dead wife or his miserable existence in a wheelchair is probably very small, but it’s the weird relationship with STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) that keeps the film alive. It speaks in a calm, methodical tone reminiscent of 2001's Hal and Grey remains the only person who can communicate with it. When STEM is granted permission to take over his body and fight, Chris Weir’s robotic-like choreography is a joy to watch and Whannell’s tilting camera movement turns these set-pieces into an energetic video game.
Unlike some of the sources Uprade takes its influences from there is no interest in layering the narrative with themes about the perils of technology. Although getting through the first act proves difficult, once the film reveals its true colours there is an admirable confidence about its willingness to remain stripped down and to the point. Given how it ends and the fact this is a Blumhouse production there is definitely room for a sequel. It looks like the STEM universe has only just begun.