There’s something truly visceral about Upgrade. Outside of the pulpy gore and brutal kills, this science fiction film gives viewers a haunting glimpse of the near future. While the idea of man melding with machine is nothing new, Upgrade does a wonderful job of exploring this relationship. Much of this is thanks to Leigh Whannell’s direction that puts the focus on the characters and not the bloody spectacles that punctuate his film.
Upgrade follows the story of Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a technophobe living in a world where self-driving cars and advanced technological implants are normal. After being attacked by a group of thugs, Grey is left paralyzed and his wife murdered.
Three months later the criminals are still free and Grey is given a chance by tech genius Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) to walk again. Reluctantly accepting, Grey is implanted with a supercomputer called Stem (Simon Maiden) and begins to hunt for those who stole everything from him.
However, Stem is more than just a technological crutch that allows Grey to move. It’s a powerful operating system with a mind of its own that acts as a literal voice in your head. Stem and Grey’s relationship is the backbone of Upgrade, as the duo frequently interacts with one another after his surgery. Whannell doesn’t waste time having Stem contemplate the nature of humanity or other familiar sci-fi tropes. Instead, Stem is a tool that always focuses on the most logical and efficient way to achieve a specific goal.
Grey subverts the typical action hero model by being a reluctant bystander to all the violence. In order to actually beat up people, he needs to temporarily give Stem total control of his physical body. This leads to moments where Grey watches in disgust and horror as Stem absolutely annihilates people. Sure this is funny, but it also does a great job highlighting how out of his depths this character actually is.
He’s not an action hero spouting off cool one-liners or remaining calm in a tense situation – that’s Stem. Instead, the person we are supposed to root for is a normal guy who is in an incredible amount of emotional pain. Yet, we are never meant to fully trust Stem or understand its motives. Even though Stem is an ally, its actions will leave you uneasy and question whether the ends justify the means.
The violence it releases has consequences that lead to a harrowing third act where Whannell kicks the script into high gear. Clocking in at a conservative 90 minutes, Upgrade does a remarkable job balancing action and development, with a clear focus on the latter. Watching Grey and Stem’s relationship progress is engaging, largely thanks to Green and Maiden’s performances.
However, some characters do slip through the cracks thanks to the short runtime. Early on we are introduced to Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the detective assigned to Greys case. She’s supposed to be the moral center of the film, but her disinterest in technology makes her feel like a less intriguing version of Grey.
Her motives feel muddled and it becomes impossible to invest in her. She’s involved in some big emotional moments throughout the plot, but they fail to resonate. Cortez is simply a person who exists to show that Grey’s actions impact others outside of the seedy criminal underworld.
The villains fair a little better, but only one obtains a real backstory and the rest are regulated to the background. Benedict Hardie does an admirable job of portraying the slimy gang’s leader, Fisk. His beliefs are quite heretical, but the plot never gives him ample time to really display or discuss his views. It’s a shame because Fisk had the opportunity to be a compelling antagonist, but he’s never around enough to make a lasting impression.
However, the design for him and his associates is certainly more eye-catching. Outside of being enhanced physically, the idea of having a gun literally implanted in their arm is simply badass. Whannell lovingly showcases how these weapons would physically operate, adding a layer of body horror to this film. It helps ground Upgrade and makes many of the action scenes more exhilarating than standard shootouts.
The only issue arises when Whannell makes Stem appear too invincible. There are moments where it feels like nothing can stop Grey and he’s never challenged until the latter half of the film. Because of this, I found myself more invested in Grey’s mental condition than anything that could hurt him physically. Yet, if you are going to see Upgrade for the action then be prepared for quick, nasty, and sometimes comical moments. Whannell has a great eye for fight scenes, with every battle featuring clever camera movements and choreography.
Upgrade is a cult classic in the making. While it’s not perfect, the fresh angle on a familiar story will keep you invested until the credits roll. Supported by great performances across the board and terrific action, Upgrade is an exhilarating experience. Even with some underdeveloped characters, the connection between Stem and Grey is compelling enough to carry the story. Even if we never get a sequel, the ending to this movie will stick with you long after the screen fades to black.