Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell draws upon a wealth of sci-fi influences for this enjoyably schlocky cyberpunk action-thriller.
June 14, 2018
Watching Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is quite the sight to behold. Forget the terrible name, which sounds like it belongs to a Mad Men ad agency rather than a person — with his convulsive moves, the mechanic turned quadriplegic turned killing machine is positively hypnotic. Filmed by writer-director Leigh Whannell in a style that's somehow both twitchy and fluid, Grey dispatches with his enemies with super-human ease, combining the cool efficiency of John Wick with the technological flair of RoboCop and The Terminator. Indeed, alongside the body horror cinema of David Cronenberg and the thrilling science-fiction of John Carpenter, it's easy to spot Upgrade's action and sci-fi influences.
Played with grim-faced precision by Tom Hardy-lookalike Green, Grey is not someone you'd want to mess with. But the character's flying fists aren't completely under his own control. Paralysed after a self-driving car crash and a subsequent attack by vicious thugs, he's now the recipient of a brain implant that has re-enabled his limbs. Called STEM, it's an experimental advancement designed by a young tech wiz (Harrison Gilbertson) who seems like he's up to no good, even though he's claiming he wants to assist. The fact that the secret chip has a mind of its own — or, rather, a voice (Simon Maiden) that compels Grey to hunt down the gang that killed his wife (Melanie Vallejo) — doesn't help matters.
Bone-crunching, blood-splattered revenge is a dish best-served with an AI sidekick in Upgrade. Although the concept might sound more tired than wired on paper, it makes for a sharp, sleek and savage wander into genre territory. Every element that initially seems worthy of an eye-roll — pre-accident, Grey is vocal about his hatred for all things digital, for example — soon raises a smile thanks to the film's pulpy execution. Weapons immeshed into the human body? A villain that sneezes computer chips? A man virtually talking to himself for the entire flick? It all works. And while Upgrade comes from the mind of someone who has seen everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to Her and Ex Machina, Whannell has dreamed their various parts into his own new creation.
There's a scene, part-way through the movie, that couldn't better encapsulate Upgrade's charms — or its savvy ability to combine its numerous sources of inspiration into an engaging vessel all of its own. It's not the most inventive of the film's many set pieces, but it makes a firm and fitting impression nonetheless. Grey awakens from an operating table, STEM freshly inserted into his spine, and Upgrade has an "it's alive!" moment. Riffing on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is hardly new — nor is taking cues from James Whale's 1931 film that brought the novel to the screen. And yet here, it really couldn't be more apt. Upgrade is a thoroughly 21st-century incarnation of the 200-year-old tale about a man reborn from cobbled-together parts, this time including both flesh and circuitry. It's also a movie put together in the same dice, splice, borrow and reuse fashion.
Furthermore, Upgrade proves a much more effective use of Whannell's skills than the Insidious and Saw flicks, the two franchises that brought him to fame after initially reviewing movies on ABC TV's Recovery. Instead of serving up by-the-numbers gore and spooks, there's smarts behind this gleeful mashup of genre staples — not to mention passion, personality, a swift pace, a gorgeous red and grey colour palette, and slick yet gritty futuristic visuals. To be fair, Whannell wrote rather than directed most of his previous hits (and also co-stars in the Insidious films), with the underwhelming Insidious: Chapter 3 his only other credit behind the lens. You'd never guess that Upgrade sprang from the same person, which might just be the biggest compliment you could pay this entertainingly schlocky cyberpunk action-thriller.