Film Review: Upgrade

Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller 'Upgrade' almost sells stock plot and characters with sharp style and camerawork.
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Introduced tooling around under the hood of a ’77 Firebird Trans Am, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is an analog dude living in a voice-command world in the sci-fi near-future of Upgrade. The film, written and directed by Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell, puts forth a visually appealing and generally credible concept of a futuristic urban cityscape dominated by eccentric towers and dotted by flying unmanned police drones.

The high-tech sentinels buzz overhead, monitoring and recording, but apparently not preventing, crime. They’re of no meaningful assistance to Grey and his doomed wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) after a self-driving error in her automated car lands them on the wrong side of town.

It’s Grey’s old neighborhood, as it turns out, not that it matters. The couple is waylaid and attacked by thugs, who martyr Asha to the revenge-movie gods, setting in motion Grey’s redemption from a post-traumatic abyss. Rendered a quadriplegic by the attack, grief-stricken Grey is ready to throw in the towel when he’s offered a chance to upgrade his abilities with a surgically implanted computer system called “Stem.”

Whannell, working in the blunt, B-movie style of ’80s action sci-fi, doesn’t encode his futurescape with overly intricate concepts or terminology. Stem is the moniker for an insect-like “cortex implant” that’s surgically attached to Grey’s brainstem. This pioneering advance in biomechanical fusion goes far beyond restoring Grey’s physical abilities, to giving him ninja-like fighting skills and the computational attributes of A.I. that speaks in a HAL-like monotone (voiced by actor Simon Maiden) inside Grey’s head. 

Of course, the upgrade comes at a steep price. That much is a given, since Grey’s life-changing implant comes as the gift of a mysterious genius tech mogul, Eron King (Harrison Gilbertson), who doesn’t mind flouting the law or medical ethics to see his invention brought to fruition. Also, as conceived and performed, King exudes a self-conscious strangeness just shy of vintage Crispin Glover, signaling that ulterior motives will come into play.

While Upgrade hides one or two twists up its sleeve, most of its cards are laid face-up on the table in its run through a formulaic vigilante plot driven by Grey’s search for the lowlifes who killed his wife. Whannell ups the ante somewhat with the notion that Grey has to fight against Stem to maintain free will over his own body, or become a murderer.

Revved up by Stem, Grey stalks a line between tracking down his attackers and mowing down anyone who gets in his way, even if they had nothing to do with the attack on him and Asha. And it isn’t that he’s on any altruistic mission to clean up the crime-ridden streets. He’s just sloppy, and extremely deadly. The script falls flat in its attempts to coax philosophy from Grey’s struggles with his inner demon.

Still, the direction builds atmosphere from the everyday presence of future-tech and a neo-John Carpenter score, courtesy of composer Jed Palmer. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio deploy sharply choreographed camerawork to depict Grey’s superhuman, Stem-assisted fight moves. Yet, the practical effects, editing and stuntwork, punctuated here and there by gruesome, Saw-stylekills, produce only mild thrills.

The issue might be that everyguy Grey is not all that compelling. The distinctive camera movement accentuates the character as much as the performance of Marshall-Green, whose face expresses not much except when pitched to extremes of anger and despair. He does rise to the demands of a precise physical performance, registering both Grey’s paralysis and his upgraded prowess.

Upgrade has a more compelling character in Gilbertson’s young genius King, but it doesn’t really exploit that potential for what its worth. Betty Gabriel (Get Out), as a caring police detective on the trail of Asha’s killers, keeps her character from appearing as dumb as written—a command that doesn’t apply to a host of other elements in the movie. Notably, Grey’s upgrade doesn’t make him smarter, but merely a host for a better operating system.

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