If Upgrade was made 25 years ago, we wouldn’t shut up about it. It would have been a cult classic that would’ve inspired a whole new generation of scifi films. Instead, in this day and age, it has to settle for being released on a label primarily concerned with VOD distribution and a small theatrical release. Such is the climate for low-budget original scifi. Mark my words: see this film in a theater if you can. It’s a blast.
In the near-future where technology is apart of everything, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a self-proclaimed analog man who fixes up classic cars for a living. After his wife is murdered and he is left paralyzed below the neck, he accepts an experimental treatment from a tech mogul where he is implanted with a computer chip named STEM that allows him superhuman reflexes and capabilities as he hunts down those responsible for killing his wife.
Leigh Whannell isn’t quite as skilled a director as he is a writer, but he shows flashes in this film that prove he’s on his way. The action sequences are just delightful. He and cinematographer Stefan Duscio employ a lot of camerawork that follows Grey’s body precisely like a gopro to enhance the thrill of it all. The violence is hardcore and pulpy, resulting in ecstatically gory ends. There is never a lack of neon coloring in Duscio’s images, reminding you of Blade Runner without relying on the reference too much. It’s just entrancing. I hope Duscio gets more work, because he really knows what he’s doing.
I can’t find the budget for this film anywhere, but whatever small amount it was they really made it go a long way. The production design is just impeccable, transporting you seamlessly into this new world. It’s got shades of cyberpunk and takes from classics like Blade Runner and RoboCop. It’s like a perfectly blended drink of all the textbook classics and deepcuts of this genre. The score by Jed Palmer is sublime. It’s the kind you want to own on vinyl immediately. It’s a vicious, thrumming electronic work rooted in the technological saturation of this world with sparse, soulful moments throughout suggesting a dying flicker of humanity. It’s going to be one of the best scores of the year.
Logan Marshall-Green is one of those actors that sadly never quite made it over the top, but I’m glad he’s filling his time with superb genre work like Upgrade and The Invitation. He’s asked to do a juggling act in this film – act like he’s not in control of his own body – and it’s fantastic. You truly believe his body is acting independent of him, and his disconnect can result in moments of hilarity that are rewarding. There’s one sequence where he just looks on in horror and shock as his body smashes plates against a guy’s face repeatedly, apologizing in between the smacks. It’s hysterical. This might sound weird, but I’m a huge fan of Harrison Gilbertson, and it’s a delight to watch him ham it all the way up as this tech genius that’s totally disconnected from humanity. In the scene where we meet him he’s operating a digital simulation of a stormcloud, and when Grey asks him what he’s doing and what that is he just simply replies “My cloud.” in this totally casual manner that suggests Grey (and us) wouldn’t understand. It’s also great to see Get Out scene stealer Betty Gabriel play a completely different role, as the detective investigating Grey’s case and eventually himself.
What I appreciate is that the film isn’t concerned with necessarily telling us its thoughts on AI, it just wants us to have fun. That’s not to say it doesn’t make you think, it’s just not at all partaking in the “AI is good/bad” tired dichotomy. To the film, AI is simply the next step in evolution, so let’s put that aside and just dig into the worldbuilding of this film and the phantasmagorical violence of it. It reminded me of when I saw The Guest, not that Upgrade is necessarily as good as The Guest, but I had that same feeling of watching a wholly unique little genre film that I just wanted to tell everybody to see.