Imagine if a movie-loving Dr. Frankenstein spliced together this unholy union of films: Death Wish, RoboCop, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Would the end result be any good and who would go see it? The answers are yes and a lot of us. The genre buffs at Blumhouse must have asked those very questions because their new film Upgrade shares more than a little DNA with those three iconic movies. Writer/director Leigh Whannell is the mad scientist that dared to bring this B-movie monster to life. Whannell has crafted a thrilling sci-fi revenge flick with a T-800’s cruel mechanical heart. If you love pulpy sci-fi stories, intense action, and over-the-top violence than you’ll want to line up for Upgrade right now.
We meet our “hero” Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) as he’s working on a car in his garage looking all grease-monkey chic – dirty, bearded, and leading man handsome. Grey lives in a futuristic world of drone-filled skies, talking refrigerators, and self-driving electric cars but he prefers getting dirty under the hood. He’s an analogue man in a digital world. Grey only takes baby steps towards accepting technology because of his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) who works for a major tech company. While they’re returning from a job, someone hacks their self-driving car and steers them into a vicious wreck. Weak and bloodied, they’re dragged out of the car by four men who shoot them both point blank. Asha dies immediately but Grey survives.
Grey wakes up to discover the shooting severed his spine and paralyzed him from the neck down. Depressed, alone, and physically broken, Grey wants to give up. But his former client, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a Tony Stark-level tech-genius comes to him with a solution. Eron offers to implant a super advanced device called Stem into Grey’s spine. It’s a thumbnail-sized chip which attaches to the spine and lets Grey’s brain speak to his entire body, restoring him to how he was before the shooting. Grey agrees and what comes next exceeds all expectations. Not only does he regain use of his arms and legs, he also possesses lightning-quick reflexes and an AI companion called Stem (Simon Maiden) that only he can hear. Bolstered by his new skills, Grey sets off to get revenge on the men who killed his wife.
Upgrade is a violent revenge flick with an outlandish sci-fi twist. Men blast bullets from their hands, there’s a bar decorated with human bones, and of course, stomach-churning gore. But Upgrade never becomes a trashy B-movie. This is largely due to Marshall-Green’s affecting performance. He brings depth and humanity to a story about a world losing its humanity. Grey suffers through multiple stages of grief and Marshall-Green sells every step along the way. It’s easy to dismiss characters in these heightened movies but Marshall-Green’s performance anchors the story in Grey’s humanity, even when things get crazy. And they do get crazy. Because of Marshall-Green, I was invested in Grey’s journey instead of waiting for the next cool set-piece to happen.
While we’re discussing performances, I have to mention Betty “No, No, No,” Gabriel’s turn as Cortez. The film tasks Gabriel with a thankless detective role. You’ve seen this role before in 100 other films. Detective Cortez is cool, competent, and razor sharp, but always one step behind Grey and the audience. With Cortez and Grey, it’s not a game of cat and mouse so much as a game of cat trying to snare light from a laser pointer. Still, Gabriel exudes a combination of gravitas and swagger that leaves an impression. I walked away from the theatre dying to see Betty Gabriel land some leading roles.
Whannell doesn’t fill Upgrade with wall-to-wall action but when the action pops off it doesn’t hold back. The film’s hyperkinetic action beats are creative, violent, and a blast to watch. A confrontation inside a small bungalow leads to one of the biggest ass-kickings I’ve seen in a long time. You almost have to watch the beating in slow-motion to fully appreciate it. For an unmodified human, fighting Grey is like going one-on-one with Optimus Prime. They don’t stand a chance but I’ll buy a front row seat to watch them try.
Grey fights with a robotic precision that makes his combat style stiff and unnatural but ruthlessly efficient. More than once, he rises from the floor without bending his joints. It’s as creepy as it sounds and he looks like Nosferatu rising from his crypt. Grey uses lightning-quick strikes, blocks, and parries which keeps his opponents on their heels. Once its time to strike the killing blow things get messy. Upgrade features exhilarating explosions of violence and gore that would be at home in the Saw movies – which makes sense since Whannell also wrote Saw.
Watching Upgrade made me feel like the film’s mad-scientist Eron pumped 1000 electrified nanobots straight into my bloodstream. Upgrade provides that special brand of adrenaline rush that only the best crowd-pleasers offer. Aside from the fantastic over-the-top action, it features a pair of great performances and some slick production design. Upgrade is a top-notch B-movie that is worth returning to again and again.