Upgrade review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Upgrade plays with an interesting new landscape for both director Leigh Whannell and the Blumhouse studio. For what could’ve been a rather simplistic sci-fi buddy action picture, Whannell has a lot of fun with the concept that he takes it to all sorts of unique areas. There’s an astuteness to the advancements and fears of technology, encroaching in ways that are mostly unseen behind the subtlety of societal improvements. There’s great grit its horror element, where bad guys receive from rather bloody beatings where faces are slit and jaws are cracked open. And there’s plenty of dark humor to be had with an artificial intelligence stuck in your head trying to call the analytical shots.
The cyberpunk story seems to exist in a world that is just one or two advancements away from the glossier and grosser future of Blade Runner. Cybernetics are becoming more common, self-driving cars seem to be in their beta stage, and virtual reality is quickly becoming the new cocaine. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a bearded mechanic of this world who seems to have a good life with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo). He works for a company that deals in cybernetic augmentations with one scientist that is developing a revolutionary new chip that can maintain basic human functions of the body.
That comfy life is ripped away when Grey is ambushed by some nasty men, has his wife murdered, and his spine damaged to make him immobile. He has no clue who did or why and neither do the police. Luckily for Grey, the eager scientist is willing to give Grey a test of his latest chip that can allow him to walk again. It’s astounding enough that Grey can walk but he then makes a greater discovery; the chip can speak to him mentally. And, upon Grey surrendering his will to the machine of his body, he can become an effective killing machine. This comes in very handy for Grey’s path of discovery and revenge, tangling with all sorts of violent men that led to the death of his wife.
These fight scenes are a real treat both for Grey’s banter with the voice in his head and the extremely ouch-worthy kills he doles out. Though Grey has no control of his body while defending himself, he still gets to react to how brutally he savages one guy in his kitchen, genuinely begging the attacker to please stay down to avoid another beating. Another interesting advantage: Grey can turn off his pain receptors so that when the hitmen think they’re torturing an immobile man, they’re really just poking a cybernetic bear that will soon rip their faces up. Or, as in a barroom brawl, deliver a series of slashings to the face.
There’s a slickness to Upgrade that always feels exciting. Just watch the kitchen fight scene alone to see an amazing use of following shots that distorts the perspective of the character and makes great use of reflections and shadows. Many interesting quandaries are posed about the nature of technology, asking how long we intend to deceive ourselves of letting automation take the reigns of our body before it takes everything. It doesn’t take a cybernetic genius to see this monotone voice will eventually go all HAL 9000 on Grey but it’s still a lot of fun to watch, especially for actor Logan Marshall-Green doing double-duty appearing both tough and terrified in fantastic action sequences.
Upgrade is the type of science fiction you don’t see too often from a director and studio you wouldn’t normally expect. For a film all about a scary future, the future of Blumhouse looks rather bright with productions such as these that tinker with different concepts that boast bigger topics of artificial intelligence while still embracing the boldness of horrific violence. In its own dark manner, right up to the surprising and dread-worthy ending, Upgrade is cleverly entertaining.