Upgrade is the most original, high-concept sci-fi thriller since Looper. It’s the kind of film that shows why it remains one of the most exciting genres when a creative thinker has an idea worthy of exploring.
Leigh Whannell, the co-creator of Saw and Insidious, trades out traditional horror for a sci-fi film with a more cerebral horror slant. One in which a person’s body becomes both a death trap and a killing machine.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is a mechanic who hasn’t quite gotten comfortable with the new status quo. He’s a guy who prefers to get his hands dirty. Grey repairs his own car instead of riding along in a self-driven car that’s more then norm.
Grey’s wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo, Power Rangers: Mystic Force), has easily adjusted and is a big time player at her tech company. Asha likes the self-driving cars, automated home assistant and other perks. Asha is immeasurably impressed when Grey introduces her to his new client, tech wizard Eeron Keen (Harrison Gibertson).
Eeron reveals a new piece of technology that would dramatically evolve this new digital revolution. Asha and Grey barely have time to make sense of it as their car crashes and a group of thugs attack them. Like a lot of revenge thrillers somebody has to die and in this case it’s Asha.
Killing the significant other is a common trope, but it would have been nice to simply sideline Asha in a different manner. The attack also leaves Grey a quadriplegic until Eeron arrives with a solution — a chip that would give Grey control of his body again. Eeron doesn’t tell him this tech comes with a sentient personality and Grey has to get used to the new voice, STEM, in his head.
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Marshall-Green does a fantastic job controlling his movements to act as if there’s a delay in thought and action. He’s not moving in a way that looks like a cheesy robot impersonation, but not like he’s in full control. Along with some well-timed sound effects for the more abrupt movements, and we get a real sense of two beings in one body.
As a big comic fan, I loved the Captain Marvel/Rick Jones or Ronnie Raymond/Professor Stein aspect of Upgrade. Where one character is the only one who can communicate with the other. It makes for an interesting and unique dynamic.
Get Out’s Betty Gabriel has a strong supporting role as Det. Cortez, the police officer assigned to Asha’s murder case. Cortez slowly starts becoming suspicious of Grey’s actions despite his current state.
Fueled by revenge, Grey won’t stop until he tracks down and stops all of the people who killed Asha. His investigation takes him to a new subculture of individuals who call themselves the upgraded.
Led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie), these upgraded have physical enhancements to improve upon their bodies. Whannell comes up with some creative tricks for the enhanced like nanotech-laced coughs and gun hands.
Whannell has largely contributed to his popular series as the screenwriter and actor. Upgrade marks his second time in the director’s chair, but this is a pretty amazing sophomore effort. Whannell knows exactly how to bring his vision to life and the rotating camera perspectives and quick cuts add to the presentation instead of being a distraction.
I really liked that Upgrade is set in the not too distant future. That makes technology like self-driving cars and next level physical upgrades seem possible. The violence is sudden and brutal. It doesn’t feel gratuitous, but Whannell never shies away from the harsh realities of extreme measures.
Like with Saw, Whannell throws in a wicked twist. It might seem like Whannell is telegraphing the ending, but it’s going to be hard to predict all of the angles.
Upgrade is an ingenious and riveting sci-fi thriller that stands out as 2018’s signature sci-fi film.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures