Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Richard Anastasios, Rosco Campbell
One of the best movie going experiences is going to a movie knowing little to nothing about it and being completely FLOORED. There was word of mouth about “Upgrade” and beyond the basic elevator pitch of “John Wick” meets “Robocop” I knew zero about it. Luckily it was playing at one of the theaters in my area and I decided to check it out. I should’ve known I was in good hands the minute the Blumhouse Productions banner came on the screen. From the very beginning it was unique. Instead of opening titles popping up on screen, the opening titles spoken and shown through soundwaves. It seemed to throw the audience off-balance and it makes “Upgrade” that much more effective. The story is simple but contains incredible world building, and some really fascinating ideas. The “John Wick”/”Robocop” description is apt but this movie also contains elements of “Blade Runner” and “Heart of Steel” from “Batman: The Animated Series”.
“Upgrade” takes place in the near future. Society is plugged in at all times. There are self-driving cars, smart homes, and law enforcement relies on drones to the point where they can remotely identify people based on the fillings in their teeth. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) isn’t a fan. He’s an analog guy stuck in a digital world. He is a proud Luddite and technophobe. He is one of the many workers who essentially became obsolete once society underwent full automation. His only source of income revolves around restoring classic cars but only has one client, the tech billionaire Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). Grey’s wife Asha works at a tech company that specializes in robotic limbs for soldiers. He convinces her to go with him to drop off Eron’s latest car. Eron is an enigmatic figure. He’s almost a robot because he so rarely leaves his underground compound. He shows them a new chip he’s working on called STEM which would be embedded in a person and unlocks their potential. Grey of course is unimpressed because he sees another way in which the worker will get replaced.
On their way home their self-driving car goes berserk and they’re in an accident. Before help can arrive they’re confronted by a group of thugs that kill Asha and paralyze Grey. Grey is a quadriplegic and has given up on life and Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) can’t make any breakthroughs on finding out who killed Asha. Eron offers Grey the chance to rebuild his life by implanting STEM into his system. Grey reluctantly accepts and it allows him to walk again. STEM (voice of Simon Maiden) begins speaking to Grey and helps him begin his quest for revenge.
Logan Marshall-Green is impressive here. The film asks him to play several different gears. He transitions from gruff everyman, to John McClain level smart ass, to a Jackie Chan style reluctant ass kicker, and play a grieving widower. Marshall-Green weaves through these different modes effortlessly and often in the same scene. When he starts to understand what STEM is capable of he tries to process it all as best he can and the further the film goes along the more he becomes full of regret. The film could’ve easily made Grey become Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” but its narrow focus to tracking down his wife’s killers keep the film from embracing the uglier aspects of vigilante films. Simon Maiden’s voice over work is outstanding. He channels both Paul Bettany’s Jarvis in “Iron Man” and HAL-9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. When STEM is shown being planted into Grey it looks like a tick. STEM becomes more and more parasitic and drains Grey both physically and emotionally. The fight scenes are well choreographed and filmed. They are all close combat style and their intensity is felt. The audience had a visceral reactions to it in a way that the vast majority of action films don’t elicit.
“Upgrade” has a vision of the future that isn’t dystopic but more in line with how society might actually function. There is no city or year defined but it feels as though it’s in the near future. The police have constant drones on patrol, citizens have ID chips in their fillings, and the self-driving cars look like a more evolved form of a Prius. The smart houses seem like something Amazon or Google would one day produce. Yet, it doesn’t go full “Blade Runner” neon cityscape and instead looks like an urban area infused with more technology. There are still pockets of the city that are dirty and dangerous. The criminals that attack Grey have guns implanted in their bodies. The crack houses of this world are places where people pay money to be plugged into a VR world because as a hacker tells Grey, it’s less painful than the real world. There are areas where technology doesn’t exist such as The Old Bones bar that Grey visits to pursue a lead. This scene is smart both because it leads to a gruesome set piece but also because it shows the limits of STEM and Grey. The scene is also lit to show the moral dilemma Grey is experiencing but also the divide between where Grey ends and STEM begins.
The film also has a lot to say about society’s reliance on technology. The criminals have weapons and processors imbedded in their bodies. They see themselves as above humans and their own species that can sneeze and have nanobots kill someone through breathing. Humans are shown outsourcing all sorts of technology. The smart house can print pizza, the cars are self-driving, and in Grey’s case, revenge is even being outsourced to a machine. The dangers this represents are well documented here. The only two analog figures in this movie are Grey and Detective Cortez. She suspects Grey even when her advanced technology clears Grey yet her gut does not. Her police car is devoid of hackable computers and she routinely visits Grey despite police not doing their work face to face anymore. It’s telling that she becomes the hero of the film the further Grey succumbs to STEM. The ending is both a great twist and one that exists in conversation of “Ex Machina” which also the evolution of technology and what happens the more sentient they become. Writer-Director Leigh Whannell crafts a film that straddles the line between Paul Verhoeven style satire and Alex Garland meditation on technology all while working on a Blumhouse budget. He is an in house talent having been a writer on the “Insidious” (where he directed the third film) and “Saw” films. He has clearly learned how to craft action scenes from his collaborations with James Wan. “Upgrade” is a low budget action film that feels much bigger because the world building is incredible while being a narrowly focused narrative has a lot to say.