Upgrade purports to be a slick and gritty thrill ride reminiscent of high concept exploitation flicks of the 80’s, nothing more, nothing less. Overall, the movie delivers on this promise, but I ultimately found the movie significantly wanting, the itch I had for hardcore action mixed with hard Sci-Fi and black humor never fully scratched. I saw the movie with some fellow cinephile compadres who had solid background knowledge of exploitation past and they really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but be too distracted by its influences and things it borrows liberally from to appreciate its original elements, most of which were actually quite good.
The film takes place in a near-future where robots and computer automated devices have fully integrated into everyday life. Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, a hard scrabble mechanic with an aversion to technology who lives with his wife Asha (Melanie Valejo), a successful business woman working for a large tech company. On the way home from visiting a client, the two get in a mysterious automated car accident, only to be accosted by a group of surly thugs as they lay injured. The goons kill Asha and grievously injure Grey, leaving him a quadriplegic. A reclusive tech genius named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) offers a chance at a new life with an experimental AI bio-interface chip called STEM, which miraculously returns grey to full mobility. However, the AI STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) also enables Grey into a quest for revenge against the men who killed his wife, leading him down a path of uncovering criminal conspiracy via cybernetic carnage.
An uncomplicated setup upon which to build an exciting action romp, Upgrade does what it says on the tin. Whats unfortunate is that there really isn’t all that much great action. There are indeed a few brilliantly gory kills, but honestly all the best moments are in the trailers; if you’ve already seen them, you’re not missing much else.
If you’ve seen Robocop, The Crow, the most recent Deadpool, or any episode of Black Mirror, you’ve already seen pretty much everything the movie has to offer. There is direct lineage to cybernetic body horror of David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike, though I also saw prominent traces of anime influence in its DNA. Of note,the film bears striking resemblance to the 1993 OVA series 8 Man After, a Hard-R reboot of a classic 1964 animated series known to be one of the first anime to feature an android protagonist. (Interesting to note that the original 8 Man story features a murdered police officer who is brought back to life via technology to fight crime and apprehend his murderers, the link to Robocop solidified even further).
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a work of art wearing its influences on its sleeve, but I must admit I am baffled by the early responses to this film as some sort of extraordinary break through for sci-fi action. One notable bit of technical wizardry is the Snori Cam effect in certain shots and action scenes that evoke a feeling of outer-body displacement, as if you were viewing the combat from a robot puppet master’s point of view. But after seeing the incredible “second person POV” fight camera choreography in the 2017 martial arts melodrama masterpiece The Villainess, the effect in Upgrade loses its efficacy somewhat in comparison.
If there’s any one movie I would most directly compare Upgrade to more than anything, it’s the 2015 experimental first person POV action film Hardcore Henry. Both films tread well trodden territory about fridged love interests and bloody cyberpunk revenge. Hardcore Henry was notoriously abrasive for both its nausea-inducing fast paced first person kinetics and its ridiculously immature edginess packed with a heaping helping of xenophobia and rampant misogyny. I still ended up enjoying the movie because of, rather than despite this overwhelming obnoxiousness. There are a number of films in recent years that have clear influence from modern video games, incorporating their aesthetics and mechanics into their film narrative (e.g. Edge of Tomorrow). It was fascinating to see a movie translate not only the visual and tonal essence of a modern FPS, but to also fully approximate the abhorrent mindset of immature racist Xbox kids and gamerbros shouting all kind of profanities into their headsets in their mother’s basements. On the other hand, Upgrade, for all its supposed ribaldry, feels like any random contemporary AAA omni-game with a generic white protagonist; part Deus Ex, part Watch Dogs, it is the archetypal Ubisoft Game come to life.
Even with all my complaints, there is plenty worth appreciating and praising in Upgrade. Being a Blumhouse joint, the amount of mileage that writer/director Leigh Whannell gets out of the relatively meager budget it is truly remarkable. The world he creates feels tangible and lived in, mixing composite scenery shots, realistically crafted machinery, terrific makeup effects, and cost effective dingy buildings and rooms to create the perfect mix of future tech utopia and worn down cyberpunk squalor. Logan Marshall-Green fully commits himself to the role, squeezing every last ounce of pathos out of what would otherwise be a boilerplate role. As well Betty Gabriel as Detective Cortez helps move the proceedings along with a balance of compassion, intelligence, and dogged detective determination.
Whannell gets a lot out of most of the resources available to him, but the proven writer somehow falters with the script and tone. While there are humorous moments abound, they feel like tacked on quips rather than sharp moments of satire. STEM speaks too much like a smart-aleck robot in a way that dulls the feeling of terror and suspense that should be evoked by a mad machine taking over a human. The henchmen present interesting material to comment on, but the movie doesn’t seem to follow through with it. There is perhaps a fascinating hypothetical situation to explore about the circumstances of future conflicts that soldiers could take part in and the idea of wounded soldiers becoming addicted to the power that high tech modifications yield, something that I hoped would be explored in the recent Robocop remake, but instead the movie has the lead villain trail off into a weird eugenicist rant that doesn’t seem to have a point. And even the most basic conceit about our growing fears about AI simulacrums like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant mean to our lives is cast off for a whelming movie climax that feels more like Alex Proyas’ I, Robot as opposed to anything thought provoking that Isaac Asimov could ponder. I would have mentioned possible spoilers in this review, but the truth is that you more than likely have seen these twists coming from miles away and done better in other stories.
As previously mentioned, Upgrade certainly tries to emulate the feeling of 80s and 90s violent sci-fi schlock, and I suspect most viewers will be satisfied by this offering. For me, I cant shake the fact that I’ve seen far more gripping and shocking movies in both past and present. This cant hold a candle to old trashterpieces like 1988s Dead Heat in 1988, nor is it on par with provocative and over the top modern action gems like 2012’s Dredd. Upgrade will certainly get you your matinee’s moneys worth, but I think I would have preferred to catch this on Friday night cable like so many of those gritty exploitation films of the past.