Written and Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, and Benedict Hardie
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Not Man. Not Machine. More.
For over a decade, Leigh Whannellís career has been irrecoverably intertwined with James Wanís, and for good reason since the duo hatched two of the centuryís most enduring franchises in Saw and Insidious. Both men have found solo success, with Wan most notably kick-starting an entire cinematic universe with The Conjuring; Whannell, on the other hand, has been a bit more low-profile, scripting the likes of Cooties and The Mule before making his directorial debut on the third Insidious film. For his sophomore effort, however, Whannell has stepped fully out of the shadow of his collaborative successes with Upgrade, a wicked genre cocktail thatís aiming to be your new favorite movie.
It does so by reminding you of, well, all of your other favorite movies as it spins a familiar tale of techno-aided revenge. In the not-too-distant-future, rugged luddite Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is one of the last analog men in an increasingly digital world. Surrounded by smart homes and smart cars, heís the type of guy who prefers to work on his classic muscle car, much to the bemusement of his more tech-savvy wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). His worst nightmare about this technology becomes a tragic reality one night when the coupleís automated car drives to a remote, rough side of town, where a pack of hoodlums murder Asher and leave Grey paralyzed. Despondent and self-destructive, Grey eventually finds salvation in Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a tech giant whose latest invention, STEM, can create a neural AI network within its hostís body, effectively restoring the paralyzed manís life. Even more importantly, this upgrade gives Grey the opportunity to seek revenge on the men who murdered his wife by dispatching them in the most merciless manner possible.
Upgrade almost begs to be considered as a pasticheóthereís no mistaking the influences here, which range from obvious sci-fi staples (Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop) to just about every Death Wish-inspired revenge thriller imaginable (though one especially detects the ruthless, neon-splashed efficiency of the John Wick films guiding it). Along the way, the story spirals into differentóand perhaps unexpectedódirections, allowing Whannell to riff on the likes of Frankenstein and 2001 to boot. Familiarity is abundant, especially since Upgradeís aesthetic cribs aspects from various genre masters, be it the ultraviolence of Verhoeven, the evocative, synth-soaked widescreen vistas of Carpenter, or the body horror of Cronenberg.
And yet, Upgrade manages a distinct voice, most notably in its offbeat, almost playful sensibilities. A lot of this is channeled through Marshall-Greenís unexpectedly lively turn as Grey; while he begins his quest as the typically brooding, tortured widower, he quickly grows a bit amused by his situation. He develops a snappy rapport with STEMís disembodied voice (Simon Maiden), giving Upgrade an almost screwball rhythm. Many of Greyís early interactions with his targets are played for laughs, as nobody expects this unassuming guy to suddenly transform into a hyper-efficient killing machine. Marshall-Green relishes the role, tapping into the latent humor with a wry streak that peeks through at just the right moments. Itís a tremendous (and, at times, tremendously funny) physical performance too, one that finds the actor taking on an increasingly robotic stiffness as STEM gains more control of his body.
Whannell injects a similarly wry, thrash-rock verve into the proceedings. He knows youíre here to watch Marshall-Green fuck people up, and he delivers an ample amount of balletic, hyperkinetic violence. Thereís a moment during his first stab at vengeance when Grey finally relinquishes control to STEM, and it might as well double as the filmís opening gun: from this point forward, Upgrade is a nigh-relentless collection of fisticuffs, shootouts, and car chases. Itís the sort of carnage that leaves you breathless because itís both abundant and squeamish enough to inspire genuine gaspsójust wait until you see the first victimís utterly broken condition once Grey (and STEM) are through with him. In his first outing as an action director, Whannell acquits himself nicely, too: Upgrade is hyperactive without resorting to nausea-inducing hack work, allowing viewers to fully absorb the mayhem and be carried away from it. Simply put, Upgrade is rad as fuck, spraying bullets and scatters body parts with reckless abandon, and upholding my long-held belief that you can never dismiss a movie where someone is forced to blow their own head off.
However, this riotous approach doubles as a disarming tactic, too: just when youíre swept away by this unruly, cathartic carnage, Whannell plants the suggestion of something menacing just below the surface. It comes just as viewers are treated to the full breadth and width of the pseudo-dystopia surrounding Grey, a brave new world where technology has infected nearly every corner of modern life, from automated homes to cops endlessly surveilling with drones. Even after his upgrade, Grey isnít privy to the seedier underbelly of this techno-scape, but he soon finds himself in the company of VR addicts, hackers, and fellow ďupgradesĒ with implanted weapons (Benedict Hardie leads their charge with a terrific dirtbag performance). All of it lays the groundwork for the inevitable paradox lurking within Grey, a man who has regained control of his life by actually relinquishing it to the artificial intelligence guiding his body. You spend most of Upgrade delighting in the bizarre bond between Grey and STEM, only to realize that the latterís playful lilt gradually takes on the sinister tone of HAL, effectively pulling the rug from beneath the whole endeavor.
Some will balk at Upgradeís designation as a horror film, and for about an hour, they might even be right; however, the final act is nothing if not a deeply unsettling dive into existential and body horror, one that finds Whannell leaning on his twisting, turning plot mechanics he patented with Saw. By the end, Upgrade has been turned inside-out, its rousing pulp sensibilities washed away by the unnerving horror of watching a manís body and soul become hijacked. This is among the best turns a film can take: it might give you everything you crave at first, but it eventually has you questioning your own complicity when it turns on you. Nobody is likely to consider Upgrade an exhaustive rumination on our technological dependence, but Whannellís clever scripting at least leaves you to ponder it. You spend an entire movie celebrating STEMís role in helping Grey exact revenge, only to be left blindsided by it all.
Perhaps less surprising is just how cool Upgrade is. Maybe itís because Whannellís solo career has been (understandably) overshadowed by Wanís so far, but this effort puts us all on notice. Heís basically taken a ton of my favorite movies, sprinkled in some neon, splatter, and synth, then tossed it all in a blenderóand now I have a new favorite movie. In the process, heís firmly stepped beyond the shadow of his famous collaborator, to the point where Iím anticipating his next move with the same eagerness Iíve reserved for James Wan for the past decade. Upgrade is the real deal: see it now, then be prepared to watch it for the rest of your life as part of your rotation of personal favorites.
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