A film review by Craig J. Koban September 9, 2018


2018, R, 96 mins.


Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace  /  Betty Gabriel as Cortez  /  Harrison Gilbertson as Eron  /  Linda Cropper as Pamela  /  Richard Cawthorne as Serk  /  Christopher Kirby as Manny  /  Benedict Hardie as Fisk  /  Melanie Vallejo as Asha  /  

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell



The futuristic science fiction thriller UPGRADE is made up of a considerable number of regurgitated thematic parts from countless other past efforts in the genre in terms of man's symbiotic, but strained relationship with machines and AI technology.  It also contains obligatory elements of the revenge thriller thrown in for good measure that we're all seen before.  

Yet, it's what UPGRADE does with these well worn elements that ultimately makes it feel novel and invigorating, which is welcome in this day and age of overstuffed and charm-free blockbusters.  Directed with spirited ingenuity by Leigh Whannell (who was one of the creative minds behind the SAW and INSIDIOUS horror franchises), UPGRADE has an ultra low micro budget of under $5 million (which wouldn't cover the catering on a TRANSFORMERS film), but it miraculously looks twenty times its cost, and its strong production artifice is married to a thanklessly decent lead performance that grounds everything nicely. 

The best way I could possible describe this ultra violent and joyously pulpy sci-fi melodrama is to say that it cherry picks - with enthusiasm - various elements from THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, DEATH WISH, and an awful lot of ROBOCOP, albeit with a few nifty twists and turns.  The aspects of a lone man that has lost his wife due to horrible criminal circumstances echoes the aforementioned films of Charles Bronson, but because UPGRADE also takes place in the future and involves the assimilation of man and machine, more than a few reverberations of ROBOCOP will, no doubt, stick out like proverbial sore thumbs.  Both UPGRADE and the iconic 1987 Paul Verhoeven helmed film share many commonalities in terms of containing central plots about a protagonist that's been emotionally and physically destroyed, but finds a new lease on life because modern machine and computer technology has saved him...and given him the ability to be fully functional again, but with some troublesome caveats.  UPGRADE doesn't work quite so well as a scathing piece of social commentary the way ROBOCOP did, but it sure makes up for its lack of thoughtful exploration of its themes with its infectious and well oiled B-grade eccentricities.  That, and Whannell has some exceedingly clever stylistic tricks up his sleeves to help segregate his film apart from others. 



Grey Trace (played by Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall Green) is a stay-at-home mechanic of the not-too-distant future that spends all of his free time restoring a vintage late 70s Trans Am, which, on the road, is in stark contrast to the sleek and aerodynamic self-driving cars that litter the streets.  His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) seems like the polar opposite of her nostalgia fuelled husband, seeing as she works for Cobolt, a corporation that specializes in leading the charge to having AI augment and control nearly everything that humans use, making every car and every home as smart as possible.  Asha feels that her spouse is hopelessly trapped in the past, whereas he has grown increasing suspicious of how computers have essentially taken over nearly every aspect of everyone's lives.   

One evening Grey asks Asha to help him deliver a restored muscle car to one of his most affluent clients, Eron Keen (young Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike Harrison Gilbertson), a powerful technology industrialist that is poised to lead the next revolution in computer augmentation.  He reveals to Grey and Asha his latest invention, a special AI chip called "Stem", which can be fused to the human brain.  On the way home from their meeting tragedy strikes when the automated car that Grey and Asha drive home in horribly malfunctions and crashes in a particularly seedy area, which leads to a group of unknown assailants shooting Asha dead and leaving poor Grey paralyzed.  He's forced to watch his wife bleed to death. 

Months go by and Grey returns home, but now as a wheelchair prone quadriplegic.  Beyond being incapable of physically looking after himself, Grey is further tormented by the inability of a local detective (GET OUT's Betty Gabriel) to identify, locate, and apprehend Asha's killers...and all in spite of having access to the most powerful drone technology the world has known.  After sinking deeper and deeper into depression, Grey hits rock bottom, but is saved, so to speak, with a visit from Eron, who offers him a chance for physical rebirth if he allows Stem to be implanted in his brain and spine, allowing him to walk again.  After some initial reluctance, Grey agrees, but only if he signs a confidentiality agreement with Enron to never reveal the surgery details to anyone. 

Now, here's where the film gets interesting.   

The surgery succeeds, and Grey does regain full power over his muscles and limbs and is able to walk again.  Unfortunately, Eron has shrewdly left out some very specific details about Stem, like the fact that it contains a sentient Hal-9000-like computer that can talk to Grey in his head.  Even more thorny is the fact that Stem reveals to Grey that he can control his body whenever required, but only if Grey verbally allows it.  This, of course, leads to some of UPGRADES most intriguing scenes, showcasing the increasingly agitated Grey trying to desperately make some sense of his newfound abilities, and all while carrying on conversations with a robot voice in his head.  It also builds to some of the film's most darkly comic moments of barbaric violence: Grey himself can't stomach the thought of murdering anyone that's tied to Asha's death, but if he allows Stem to do it, though, then the program is A-okay with taking full motor control away from him and going on the lethally violent offensive. 

I found all of this endlessly fascinating, which helps UPGRADE overcome any overt criticisms of being wholly derivative.  I liked the progression of Grey's symbiotic relationship with Stem, which starts off as Grey seeing it as a technological savoir that grants him his physical life back, but as soon as that impassionate robot voice begins chatting away in his head Grey is forced to deal with the realization that Stem can do a hell of a lot more than simply allow for him to walk again.  A lot of the macabre humor in UPGRADE comes at Grey's moral repulsion to violence in any form, but his inevitable willingness to let Stem take over and do all the nasty murder-death-killing for him.  Whannell shows nifty innovation with the fight sequences, seeing as he has to somehow plausibly relay Grey as a man that is limitlessly flexible and dexterous, but while having no conscious control over his body.  The camera work in these various bone crushing and blood curdling fight sequences is fluid, yet has an unnatural jerkiness to it, which sells the illusion that Grey is being momentarily possessed by his AI chip.  Moments like this are also a testament to how good Marshall-Green is as a physical actor, having to play scene after scene where he has to display pitch perfect timing and physical grace while relaying on his face that he has no idea what the hell is going on. 

Marhshall-Green sells his character's robot-infused might impeccably well, but he's also even better at showing this character at his absolute worst in life where you feel the burden of his handicap ravaging him to the point of suicidal tendencies.  The thematic irony in UPGRADE is thought provoking in the sense that Grey begins the film shunning technology, but ultimately becoming one with it.  There's an emotional component to UPGRADE that allows for our easy investment in Grey as a revenge fuelled hero.  I also appreciated the fact that the film is also a slow burn affair that takes its time  with showing Grey's hellish fall from grace, but eventual recovery, and then down some darker narrative detours that suggest that his union with Stem may not entirely end well for him.  Even though UPGRADE has the undertones of pure ultraviolent grindhouse fare, it has deeper ambitions that allow for it to rise a bit above such simplistic monikers. 

I only wished that UPGRADE were a little bit longer to more fully investigate its ageless sci-fi themes; there are times when it certainly looks like its going to toss away stale genre troupes and emerge as a piece of well oiled and thoughtfully speculative sci-fi, only then to fall back on the standard order troupes.  More often than not, UPGRADE seems too reticent to explore its ideas any deeper and instead wants to get to the next big action set piece.  The film also culminates with a few multiple twists that are not altogether as surprising as the writers think they are, but I did appreciate the haunting darkness of the story's ending.  UPGRADE may not entirely be an intelligent sci-fi parable about man versus machine, but it's solidly acted and directed, and Whannell, to his credit, creates a bold and memorable world of the future with minimal financial resources (this is a rich looking cheap film).  And at least UPGRADE tries to inhabit well worn genre material while trying to make it fresh and new instead of just lazily appropriating it.    

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