Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Betty Gabriel, Simon Maiden
Upgrade is a futuristic revenge-thriller with all the bells and whistles.
Leigh Whannell, one of the minds behind the notorious Saw and Insidious franchises, has taken a step away from horror and towards the science-fiction genre with Upgrade, a futuristic and happily savage sci-fi thriller, centred around the topical subject of artificial-intelligence. After being paralysed and forced to watch the brutal murder of his wife, Grey Trace agrees to an innovative neurological 'upgrade' called STEM, which will allow him to regain the use of his limbs... as well as bestow him with several other abilities. Now upgraded, Grey sets out on a quest for revenge against those responsible for his wife's death.
Films like this can often be strangled in an attempt to appeal to younger audiences, but Upgrade was wisely let off the leash with its 15 rating. Not only does it allow for the breathtaking level of violence, but it also gives the story some essential weight. The film's beginning is suitably brutal, providing a cogent catalyst for Grey's later decisions, and takes a sensible amount of time to arrive at his choice to upgrade, building a convincing and logical story on the way. The actual 'upgrade' itself feels little rushed, Grey regaining the use of his limbs a little too fast, but this is forgivable as it helps the story move along into its next phase.
It is an intelligent sci-fi world within which the story takes place, one which echoes the transition that we are currently making into a more and more computer dominated world. Mechanical engine vehicles are now second to futuristic driverless vessels, while police work is done remotely via drones, with only a few cops sticking to old-school door-to-door methods. It is a backdrop which is grounded in reality, not too far away from where we currently are in regards to technology, but far enough in the future that it can produce an interesting and inventive world.
This inventiveness can also be seen in the 'upgrade' itself. It cleverly highlights the endless possibilities of the introduction of AI into the human body - such as the reversal of paralysis - but also shines a light of the dangers of abusing such technology. Weaponised biometric implants provide a salient and more aggressive representation of these dangers, while Grey's relationship with STEM provides a more philosophical warning. Upgrade is a clever but extreme look at the potential dangers of mishandled artificial-intelligence.
It is a serious and present issue which Upgrade demonstrates, but it does so in an undeniably fun way, in a kind of cross between Black Mirror and Kill Bill - a fusion of influences which is most apparent during the film's many fights. Many of the later ones appear to be martial arts influenced and the camera work during each one is incredible; each has a very original look, the camera constantly moving back and forth, up and down, but in a precise and calculated way. It creates a dizzying experience as we follow each swing and block. Their conclusions are also fantastically bloody, but never over-do it, refusing to pander the modern fascination with graphic injuries (a fascination which, ironically, has been perpetuated by the later sequels of Whannell's Saw (2004)).
Logan Marshall-Green is a brilliant lead, and is really allowed to have to fun with this role. He is likeable throughout, and during the film's beginning demonstrates some very emotional displays, bringing some moments of tenderness to the mostly violent landscape of the film. He demonstrates a very good physical performance as well; a subtle change in mannerisms accompanies his 'upgrade', his regular fluid movements becoming more angular and precise, walking with a straighter back and stiffer neck. There is a real detachment from Grey and his body which really portrays a sense of dual personalities at work, particularly as the story progresses and the partnership between him and STEM begins to evolve.
Gilbertson is suitably neurotic as the intellectual but socially-challenged Eron, the creator of STEM, characterising many of the ultra-rich and influential figures in the world of technology we have at the moment. Hardie is a suitably ruthless villain, managing to transmit a real sense of power and ability despite not being physically imposing, while Maiden brings a very subtle sense of personality to the voice of STEM, his introduction being a nice injection of levity in a film which has been so far largely sombre.
Upgrade is a fun and exciting sci-fi revenge thriller which intelligently explores the potential dangers of future technology. It takes place near enough for it to be realistic, but far away enough for us to enjoy a creative futuristic world. It's a cheerfully violent but controlled film, with a solid story-line and a decent conclusion which appears obvious at first but then adds one final surprise.
In one line: The dangers of artificial-intelligence are explored in the most brutal fashion in this fun and inventive sci-fi thriller, Upgrade.