Upgrade (United States, 2018)

June 02, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Upgrade Poster

Upgrade, the exploitation-influenced stepchild of Payback and Robocop, is the latest creation from Leigh Whannell, the influence behind Saw and Insidious. Working without the James Wan safety net, Whannell proves adept at providing sufficient blood and violence to prevent anyone from mistaking Upgrade for a more serious-minded sci-fi endeavor. Like all B-movies, this one provides moments of visceral satisfaction while ignoring nuance and (at times) logic.

Those overthinking things might mistake Upgrade for a cautionary tale about technology run amok. Although the topic is there, it’s really little more than a jumping-off point for the actions of a man-turned-terminator who’s seeking revenge for his wife’s killing and his own maiming. The movie throws out a few science fiction tropes, such as the concept of sophisticated AI evolution, but it’s not especially interested in exploring these – at least not when there are living people left around to add to the body count.

Upgrade isn’t pure exploitation, at least not in the traditional sense. Missing from the equation are the gratuitous sex and nudity that no self-respecting old-school B-movie would be without. Whannell has crafted this film from the perspective that blood, viscera, and the gruesome deaths are desirable but the naked body is to be avoided at all costs. This weird Puritanism isn’t unique to Upgrade. I can understand it in movies with high-minded ideals or those that strive for a PG-13 rating, but Upgrade is unquestionably R and unapologetically lowbrow.

Upgrade is set in the mid-to-late 21st century. We meet good guy Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a throwback who likes working with his hands. He has a gorgeous house (equipped with all the latest tech gadgets) and an equally gorgeous wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). Then, one night, tragedy strikes. Criminals take advantage of a car accident, killing Asha and crippling Grey. Soon after, he is approached by the mysterious boy-wonder scientist Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) with an offer: if he is willing to participate in the experimental trial of a new form of implanted microchip, he may be able to walk again. Grey soon learns that “Stem” (voice provided by Simon Maiden) can do more than provide mobility; it can make him “better, stronger, faster.” And, by taking advantage of his new capabilities, he can track down Fisk (Benedict Hardie), the cyborg responsible for Asha’s murder, after eliminating various henchmen along the way. Unlike Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the cop working the case, he doesn’t have to worry about evidence. Using Stem’s abilities and his own intuition, he becomes judge, jury, and executioner.

Although Whannell quotes shamelessly from the opening of The Six Million Dollar Man, he’s probably thinking more Robocop in envisioning Grey’s transformation. However, unlike the Paul Verhoeven film, which was a thinly-veiled allegory/dark satire, Upgrade is more straightforward in its goals. The technical elements become colorful accessories for a narrative that is grounded in the Payback/Death Wish brand of revenge/vigilante justice.

Upgrade is a little like The Purge in its unwillingness to really explore the implications of its central premise, deciding instead to use the most interesting aspects of the story as background color. This will undoubtedly frustrate science fiction fans but the end result is almost certainly what Whannell wanted. Upgrade has a narrow but clearly delineated target demographic that overlaps with the previously mentioned Saw, Insidious, and The Purge. The movie is tasteless, disturbing, and misanthropic – qualities that can be good or bad depending on what you’re expecting – but it’s also entertaining if you’re in the mood to see a wronged man do all sorts of heinous things to those responsible for his current predicament.

Upgrade (United States, 2018)

Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Benedict Hardie, Betty Gabriel, Richard Cawthorne, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Simon Maiden
Home Release Date: 2018-08-28
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Cinematography: Stefan Duscio
Music: Jed Palmer
U.S. Distributor: BH Tilt
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2018-06-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, DIsturbing Images, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1