Director: Leigh Whannell
Length: 95 minutes
When I sat down to watch Upgrade, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a paint-by-numbers revenge flick, or if I was in for a massive surprise. Now, as I write this, I know it was the latter. I was surprised—not so much by the film itself, but with how much it stuck with me after I left the cinema.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious: Chapter 3), Upgrade is an intriguing body horror film filled with revenge and violence. Set in the near future, mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is left paralysed by cyborg assassins (it’s the future, remember) and is helpless as he watches them kill his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). As he languishes in hospital, he is approached by tech innovator, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who proposes that Grey could be healed with a ground-breaking implant named STEM. After reluctantly agreeing, Grey embarks on a solo revenge mission to find his wife’s killers or die trying.
I definitely enjoyed Upgrade. Its intense violence was tempered by legitimately funny moments between STEM and Grey. It looked good and the action managed to keep me—not the biggest action fan—engaged throughout. Betty Gabriel as Detective Cortez was by far a standout of the film, closely followed by Benedict Hardie as the psychotic Fisk and Marshall-Green as Grey. Their performances more than made up for Vallejo’s lackluster effort and Gilbertson’s over the top weirdness.
One thing the film lacked was real stakes. I rarely felt like Grey was under any real threat and when he was, I struggled to care too much. This isn’t a heartless reaction—Grey had already expressed that he was miserable, suffering and suicidal. I wish that, following Asha’s death, a real motivation outside of revenge were established in order to keep me rooting for him and hopeful.
Whannell has some big ideas and interesting themes that remain shapeless under the plot and never really surface. The film is very much about Grey’s sense of autonomy in a world filled with technology. He rejects implants, insists on working with vintage cars and in this sleek futuristic world, looks like he probably hunts for his dinner—like a real man. Yet, Grey’s autonomy isn’t lost due to his accident—rather it is stolen by the technology that begins to take over his life—first, the hospital approved bots that clean him, carry him, feed him and medicate him (but not too much) and then STEM who frequently takes control over Grey’s body whether he wants it or not. Whannell warns us about the real possibilities of technology without becoming preachy, however that’s about as in-depth as it gets. Whannell hints at hackers, cyborg soldiers, vast inequality, and an ever looming them—but never explores it further. I would’ve liked to inhabit the world a bit more—in this respect, the audience is tantalised but never sated.
Upgrade’s true strength lies in its visuals. Visual effects work excellently to create a realistic and exciting futuristic world. The use of light and colour by Stefan Duscio evoke the atmosphere of a video game world—which I think was very intentional given the subject matter. In action scenes, the camera becomes a living thing, moving with slick precision to capture the fights dynamically and creatively. As an audience, we become active participants in the action and that makes it all the more enjoyable.
Upgrade ends bleakly—I think we could all expect that. However, the level of bleakness is surprising for a film that seemed to want to avoid unnecessary grittiness. Still, I walked away happy (I also tripped down the cinema steps, but that’s another story); Upgrade met my expectations with a simple, character driven plot and a thought-provoking ending that would motivate me to watch a sequel.