UPGRADE [Film Review]: Automated Vengeance.
Upgrade has been a must-see ever since it debuted at the 2018 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival and won the Midnighters Audience Award earlier this year. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious: The Last Key), Upgrade takes place in a near future where society has become high-tech and completely dependable on artificial intelligence; self-driving cars, smart houses, and authoritative drone surveillance are a few examples. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall Green) is a stay-at-home mechanic who fixes cars for high paying clients. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo, Power Rangers Mystic Force) works at a tech company called Cobalt. Grey’s recent client, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson, Need for Speed) is the head of Cobalt’s rival and more advanced company Vessel. Eron reveals that he’s been working on a state of the art microchip known as STEM, which is a widget that can enhance whatever it’s connected to.
On the drive home, the A.I. vehicle Grey and Asha are riding in malfunctions and they crash. Ambushed by four men, their leader known as Fisk (Benedict Hardie, Hacksaw Ridge) kills Asha and leaves Grey paralyzed from the neck down. Left with nothing but the urge to die, Grey is approached by Eron who offers the STEM prototype as an effort for Grey to walk again. The procedure is a success, but Grey begins communicating with the chip in his spine. STEM increases Grey’s abilities beyond anything he could have ever imagined, but his only desire is to get retribution on the men who killed his wife even if his revenge gets in the way of the police work of the detective assigned to his case, Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel, Get Out).
The camera work of Upgrade is perhaps its most satisfying aspect. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio has found a way to bring the machine concept of a quadriplegic gaining the ability to walk again to life. After the operation, Grey begins to move differently; his stride is stiff, his shoulders move but the bottom half of his body has a delayed reaction, and it’s almost as if Logan Marshall-Green is doing a Robocop impression whenever he moves. The inventive angles of the camera throw the audience into Grey’s shoes and into the action he often injects himself into. Similar to how the camera followed the action in The Raid 2, Duscio takes it a step further. The camera swivels, leans, tilts, shakes, and reverts to a standing position after Grey gets up from a lying flat on the ground. When he first arrives home, the camera follows Grey like a third person shooter video game but the movement is rigid like a machine rather than the fluid nature of a human. The computerized sound effects that accompany Grey’s movements would make the likes of Cable from Deadpool 2 and dubstep music in general more than a little envious.
Logan Marshall-Green has always had this mesmerizing charisma in his performances with his sickening turn in Prometheus and his more grounded yet equally impressive role in the thrillingly unnerving film The Invitation being a few that come to mind, but Marshall-Green has the opportunity to showcase more than he usually does in Upgrade. As Grey, Marshall-Green is a devoted husband, a grieving widower, a sarcastic jerk, and a wisecracking antihero all rolled into one. Grey experiences this crazy spectrum over the course of Upgrade, which is something any actor would love to have the opportunity to portray. The technological advancements some humans are putting their bodies through in Upgrade remind you of Replicants in Blade Runner. Benedict Hardie is heartless as Fisk. In a way, he’s a lot like Grey in the sense that he experienced a tragedy before enhancing his body but now Fisk is as cold and detached from human emotions as the robot arms that make Gray’s protein shakes.
Upgrade doesn’t have a massive budget, but it absolutely makes the most of whatever kind of budget was at its disposal. Action sequences hit hard and are incredibly fast paced, but also feature a lot of humor and utilize bloody violence as an exclamation mark or a finale of some kind. The kills are typically creative and feel earned rather than just handed out in mass like an advertisement or a flyer. Blood is shed for survival in Upgrade and revolves around someone who doesn’t want to kill people, but is essentially forced to against his will.
If John Wick was rewired and reprogrammed to star in a superior version of Hardcore Henry, you’d get Upgrade. The first Saw was incredible to experience in the theater, but Upgrade is Leigh Whannell’s most satisfying film as both a writer and a director to date. Logan Marshall-Green proves how versatile and talented he is as a leading man. With unbelievable action sequences, jaw-dropping bloodshed, and a surprisingly imaginative climax, Upgrade is sci-fi body horror at its most dynamic and raw. If we are fortunate to get a sequel, please let it be called Upgrade 2.0. While there isn’t anything after the credits, stay away from the red-band trailer since it spoils the majority of the kills in the film. 4.25/5 Ninjastic Bibles.