Upgrade is a highly enjoyable yet underexposed movie. It’s often billed as a B-Movie and of course, considering its production company (Blumhouse Tilt) as well as its relatively small budget (between 3 and 5 million dollars) I suppose it is. The label of “B-Movie” however, always sounds like a dig to me, like a film described that way is somehow sub-par. In my experience, 8 times out of 10, a so-called B-Movie is more entertaining and rewarding than the majority of films released by mainstream Hollywood and Upgrade is definitely one of those movies. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Cooties) I guess this was always destined to be a small film but that being said, the plot here is anything but small-scale. And although the actors, sets, and effects are obviously not “big-budget”, what the film lacks in cash it rakes back with its overall concept, storyline, and by casting a likeable lead.
Upgrade tells the story of a car mechanic named Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green) who builds old-school, human-controlled cars in an unspecified future where almost all vehicles are computer driven. In this future, police drones surveil everybody and ID chips are embedded in people in order to solve crimes (but criminals can of course bypass them). This anti-technology satire is very pertinent in today’s society with much of the tech shown in the movie slowly making its way into our reality, but I digress. Grey who has just dropped off one of his cars to a rich technology innovator and inventor named Eron Keen, is riding a self-driven car home with his wife Asha. After a malfunction of their vehicle, the pair are then suddenly attacked by a gang of unknown men. After they are both dragged out of the wreck, Asha is shot and killed and Grey is left paralysed. Trace is confined to a wheelchair, seemingly for the rest of his life until one day Eron shows up at his hospital bed with a suggestion; his new, unreleased artificial intelligence microchip known as “STEM” can bridge the severed connection between Grey’s brain and body. So, following a secret operation to implant the chip, Grey discovers that as well as helping him walk, STEM can talk to him in an Iron Man/Jarvis kind of way; it can suggest actions, help him be more dexterous, and even take over his body. Grey then uses STEM to find the killers of his wife and with the aid of his AI upgrade, he hunts, interrogates, fights, and kills those involved as he slowly discovers who is behind the attack and why.
On the face of it, Upgrade‘s plot sounds very straight-forward, almost like something you’ve seen before. Critics have lazily described it as somewhere between The Six Million Dollar Man and Death Wish, with some likening it to the works of James Cameron and John Carpenter. For me, the film in terms of plot and style is somewhere between David Cronenberg and the Wachowskis, although Upgrade isn’t quite as extreme a body-horror as The Fly or eXistenZ or as slick as the first Matrix. Instead what you have is a film that is a unique blend of drama, action, comedy, and science-fiction, and the end result is a very satisfying mix indeed. This film for me, actually owes a lot to the original Paul Verhoeven RoboCop which also offered the viewer a hint of sadness and tragedy in an otherwise straight-forward action-packed cybernetic Sci-Fi film. As with RoboCop, in Upgrade you have all the usual human-computer-hybrid hijinks; the chases, the fights, the technological superiority but you also have a human side, in this case the loss of a partner, the depression after being left quadriplegic, the contemplation of suicide, the idea of retribution. There’s various issues being pondered here aside from the obvious anti-intrusive technology, and the lack of choice to commit suicide if you aren’t able-bodied is one which is handled very well. There’s also the relatively original aspect of showing computer-aided living for disabled people as a help and a hindrance, especially to self-determination.
Instead of Matrix-style bullet-time, in Upgrade director Leigh Whannell employs a SnorriCam-esque technique which is very effective for the “upgraded” fight scenes making Trace the centre of the action as well as looking robotic-ally or technologically “aided”. These shots I assume, were achieved by tracking Logan’s body in a present-day, digital equivalent to Steve Barron’s music video for A-ha’s “Cry Wolf” in which the eyes of the singers were kept steady for the viewer by moving the film negative around. Of course this film was also written by Whannell so there’s also some funny moments here and there; there’s great gags about the construct of humanity (the line “one more citizen taking up oxygen, some asshole hoping to breed before I drop dead so I can be remembered by another asshole”), a quick joke about non-binary gender at the expense of hacker character Jamie, and there’s even small comedic additions to the set such as the “J. Wan” label on the door buzzer and the image of Billy The Puppet from the Saw films graffitied on the wall.
In terms of acting, there’s Betty Gabriel who did some fantastic yet underrated acting in Get Out. She plays the detective investigating the murder of Asha Trace. The lead role of Grey Trace as I’ve previously mentioned, is played by Logan Marshall-Green who always looked similar to Tom Hardy to me, in fact the bearded pair and the trailers for their respective films Upgrade and Venom looked very similar when they were released (a man who receives special fighting abilities via a foreign implant that talks to him in his head). In some ways, maybe Upgrade got lost in the lead-up to Venom but the former is a much better film.
Upgrade is a movie that gets better the further along it gets. I must admit that as early on as the scene involving the car-ride home from Eron Keen’s house, I thought I’d guessed who was responsible and why but by the end of the film, there was a satisfying additional twist involving a coerced fall-guy and the splitting of altars in the mind. The ending therefore was simultaneously sombre and satisfying.
Had Upgrade been released in the 1980s or 1990s, say somewhere between Terminator, the aforementioned RoboCop, and Universal Soldier, people would have not only flocked to see this, they would have rented it, bought copies of it and it would have then become a cult classic. But, in the present-day cinematic-climate with non-stop, big-budget comic book adaptations, nobody has an appetite for films which don’t rely on a built-in fanbase, not to mention films which seemingly look or sound as through they might be similar to old-school classics. It’s a strange situation that the public don’t bat an eyelid when multiple mainstream reboots or remakes are forced upon them but they turn away if they hear even a slight familiar but unconnected plot.
If you haven’t already watched this film, I urge you to seek it out. I personally missed the cinema release (which was a very short run) but now that the film is released on home media, in some territories (including here in the UK) we cannot purchase a blu-ray version, which is annoying to most people with a HD (or better) TV (which let’s face it, is everybody). All this “B-Movie” promotional and production restraint is a shame as Upgrade is a fine film whether you’re a new or old-school movie fan or a Sci-Fi, Horror, Drama, or Comedy enthusiast. This is a highly enjoyable film that is well worth the rent and definitely worth buying, although for me, I’ll wait until the 576 pixels are replaced by a 1080 or 4K release, when it’s…
Update: Today (18th November 2019) Upgrade has finally been released on Blu-ray in the UK
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