Leigh Whannell has been one of the leading voices in modern horror ever since Saw arrived on the scene in 2004. For his second time taking the directorial reins, Whannell ventures into the realm of science fiction with Upgrade, his beautifully brutal action flick that turns Logan Marshall-Green into a living, breathing weapon hell-bent on revenge after an accident and a run-in with some hired thugs leaves him paralyzed and grieving his wife, who is killed by the group of unknown assailants.
Clearly influenced by films like The Terminator, Videodrome, The Matrix, RoboCop, and there may even be a little bit of Johnny Mnemonic in there as well (hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?), Whannell transports us into the future where technology has taken over nearly ever facet of our lives, but Grey Trace (Marshall-Green) still clings to his analog-loving existence by working on classic cars and expressing his desire to make pizza from scratch. One night, as he’s heading home with his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), their self-driving car ends up crashing violently, and before he can even process what is happening, Grey watches in horror as his wife is gunned down and a mysterious man severs his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.
With the police unable to figure out who attacked Grey and his wife, he’s offered the chance to get his life back on track by a reclusive tech genius (Harrison Gilbertson), who implants a neat little gizmo known as STEM into Grey, allowing him the ability to regain his ambulatory status. However, this gift comes with a hefty price tag and some strings attached, like the fact that Grey really is no longer in control of his motor skills, and STEM has officially taken over.
Part body horror/part gritty actioner, Upgrade isn’t a complete home run for Whannell, but his enthusiasm for his futuristic world, plus the amount of ambition on screen helps smooth out some rough edges when it comes to the film’s slight struggles with tone at times. That said, when Marshall-Green cuts loose with his nifty new STEM-influenced abilities, Upgrade becomes a total blast, and we get some truly inspired action scenes that feel wholly realistic and are absolutely thrilling to watch (kudos to cinematographer Stefan Duscio for nailing these scenes—there’s one moment when I audibly gasped by what he was able to achieve on screen with the camera). Marshall-Green’s physical performance in Upgrade is something of a marvel too, and I love how the film gives the actor’s sense of humor an opportunity to shine as he snarkily takes down various bad guys (more roles like this, please, Mr. Marshall-Green).
There are also some wickedly fun kills in Upgrade that completely blew my mind (there’s one in particular involving a knife and a mouth, and it’s easily one of the most wonderfully horrifying practical gags I’ve seen in a film in a long time), and I loved how Whannell takes society’s obsession with technology into a completely gonzo cyberpunk direction reminiscent of many of the films mentioned above, while still feeling completely new all the same. I enjoyed Whannell’s work on his previous directorial effort, Insidious: Chapter 3, but Upgrade is truly his most ambitious film to date. I always appreciate when a filmmaker working within the confines of a limited budget makes their movie feel like it has 10 times the budget it really has, and Whannell does just that here. Upgrade might have a few minor glitches in its mainframe, but overall, once Marshall-Green goes full-on Mr. Roboto, that’s when the real enjoyment begins, with Upgrade delivering some brutally fun entertainment.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
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