By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
Upgrade takes place in the near future, where reliance on technology has resulted in self-driving cars and smart homes that can 3D print food and talk to you. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) lives happily with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), though her embracing of technology is antithetical to his general disdain for it, and he spends his time as a mechanic restoring old cars that are driven by their passengers and don’t talk. While delivering a newly-restored car to a customer, the Traces are ambushed by a group led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie), who murder Asha and leave Grey paralyzed from the neck down. Grey has lost all will to live, unable to move and reliant on the technology in his home that he has no trust in.
Genius, socially-clumsy inventor Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) offers Grey a second chance: an implant called STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden), which would be surgically attached to Grey’s spine and allow him to walk again. The fine print does not indicate that STEM is also capable of speaking to Grey and imbuing him with superhuman reflexes and fighting prowess. STEM is more than enthusiastic to help Grey hunt down his attackers and avenge his wife. While he maintains his guise as a quadriplegic, the sudden tendency of thugs connected to Asha’s murder to turn up dead attracts the suspicion of Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the officer investigating the attack on the Traces.
There’s a great deal of creativity in the worldbuilding Whannell employs throughout most of Upgrade, not necessarily in what he does but how he does it. He paints a distinct rift between those that have embraced a more technological world and those that haven’t, but they exist at further ends of the spectrum than is usually shown in these sorts of movies. Whannell mostly shows rather than tells us that some areas of the city are completely off-grid (no electronics allowed whatsoever), while others have installed cybernetic augments in themselves. Grey’s general mistrust of technology makes for some interesting and occasionally humorous character moments.
Whannell started the script for Upgrade around six years ago, before the somewhat alarming explosion of talking smart devices that we often give our complete trust to. The world of Upgrade feels like a full evolution of this new trend and his framing is a surprisingly effective fusion of complacency and paranoia. The sleekness of new technology is consistently juxtaposed against the urban grime of the old, and while there is some surprising depth to some of the movie’s themes of technology’s prevalence in society and our somewhat worrisome reliance on it, Upgrade is wild entertainment first and foremost–a villain literally has a gun for a hand, how can you not love that?
The budget for Upgrade hasn’t yet been officially released, but most Blumhouse productions usually hover around $5 million. It’s not exaggerating to say that the movie looks easily at least five times that. One of the most impressive sequences in the movie is a car chase, which isn’t altogether groundbreaking by normal action movie standards but becomes far more impressive when you imagine the price tag and what Whannell was able to do with it. Colorful production design evokes comic book pages and a surprisingly satisfying use of camera stabilization gives the movie a wholly original aesthetic personality. If nothing else, Upgrade is a truly impressive exhibit on how much can be done on a shoestring budget.
As if he shouldn’t be already for great thrillers like The Invitation, this should be the performance that puts Logan Marshall-Green on the map. He’s absolutely magnetic here, particularly in his physical acting. His posture changes drastically before and after the operation, and when STEM temporarily commands his body, Marshall-Green’s look of horror and disgust is convincingly divorced from what his body is doing outside of his control. He also holds his own during the more dramatic sequences as he mourns the loss of his wife and his mobility in the first act. We should be seeing more of Marshall-Green soon, and that is a very good thing.
Upgrade is a spectacularly satisfying blend of action, horror, comedy, and techno-thriller with a healthy dollop of ridiculous violence, making it one of the most entertaining movies of the summer on a fraction of the cost of its tentpole competitors. Leigh Whannell, already having defined a new subgenre of modern horror years ago, has now positioned himself as one of the most inventive directors working today. It’s worth the theater admission price both to support Whannell’s original vision and for the pure, gnarly fun you’re going to have. Support this movie–you will not regret it.
Upgrade (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Do a Shot: every time Grey is suddenly no longer quadriplegic
Take a Drink: whenever Grey openly rejects technology
Do a Shot: whenever STEM violently murders someone
Take a Drink: every time Grey does something that should make Cortez suspicious