UPGRADE: Pulpy Violence & Unexpected Humor In Blumhouse Thriller
Upgrade a gleefully nasty film that relies on a unique mixture of futuristic beautiful landscapes and old-school grindhouse fun.
It’s almost refreshing to see a movie about artificial intelligence that isn’t a cautionary tale about the dangers of creation or a warning to Silicon Valley tech bros. That’s not to say that Leigh Whannell‘s Upgrade, a new sci-fi thriller from the folks at Blumhouse, has a rosy view of technology. But this isn’t Ex Machina, and it absolutely never tries to be. Even as the film explores the inherent trouble that comes with advanced tech, it’s never saddled with any kind of explicit message, never didactic or preachy or condescending in any way.
Instead, Whannell‘s second feature remains true to its roots throughout, blending the slick thrills of the modern science-fiction movie with the grimy fun of a grindhouse flick. After years of working closely with Insidious and Saw horror maestro James Wan, Whannell hones his own budding style here, highlighted by swift camera movements and inventive action sequences.
Led by the performance of Logan Marshall-Green, whose gruff drawl and perfectly timed delivery bring life to a challenging character, Upgrade is a minor achievement, but a wholly satisfying one. With refreshingly low stakes, spectacular bloodshed, and surprising bursts of humor, Whannell delivers the goods.
Futuristic Revenge on an Intimate Scale
Grey Trace (Marshall-Green) may be living in a technologically-enhanced future, but his job requires him to keep one foot planted firmly in the past. While most people are using sleek, Blade Runner-esque self-driving cars, Grey fixes old antique vehicles for his wealthy clientele, including tech billionaire Eron (Harrison Gilbertson).
On a routine drop-off, Eron introduces Grey and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), to STEM, a new implant that could change the way human beings interact with technology. Asha works for Eron’s main competition, and she marvels at the astonishing advancements of this reclusive genius.
But shortly after we’ve seen what tech can do in this modern society, we quickly see the pitfalls of advancement when Grey and Asha’s car malfunctions in a violent part of town. A group of assassins ambush the couple, resulting in Asha’s death and Grey’s paralysis. Devastated and depressed, Grey retreats to a sedentary life as a paraplegic. And that’s when Eron re-enters the picture. He offers Grey a chance to walk again, but it would require him to serve as a secret test subject for STEM. Grey reluctantly agrees.
Miraculously, the procedure works, giving Grey the ability to go about his normal life. But at this point, the former mechanic really just wants one thing: revenge. Thankfully for Grey, STEM can help with that, as it becomes rapidly clear that the fancy implant has a mind of its own (voiced by Simon Maiden).
Armed with superhuman skills and a penchant for bone-crunching violence, Grey and STEM hunt down the men responsible one by one, dispatching them with remarkable force. But as Grey’s retribution mission nears its completion, his work is threatened by STEM’s own impulses and an insightful detective (Betty Gabriel) who has grown increasingly suspicious of his behavior.
Low Stakes, High Impact
Producer Jason Blum‘s interests lie primarily in micro-budget horror, but he has dipped his toes into the realm of small-scale science fiction in recent years. Upgrade feels similar to last year’s Blum-produced Sleight, although it is much more successful than that magic thriller in many regards.
Nonetheless, the key to this film’s success lies in its small, intimate stakes, which allow the innovative, radically futuristic world to feel contained and manageable. Whannell has created a big, impressive universe (especially for a film of this size), but the precise focus on a single character and the presence of a relatively tiny story make Upgrade all the more effective.
Essentially, simplicity is a virtue in Upgrade, one that allows Whannell to make several choices that serve as such a nice antidote to the increasingly bigger and more fantastical sci-fi films we see today. There is no needless exposition in the film, nor are there any explanations for how humanity ended up in this hyper-advanced future.
Even in a film that features slick cars, upgraded humans equipped with weapons, and plenty of futuristic skyscrapers, everything in Upgrade is blunt, forceful, and to the point. The director certainly leaves you wishing you could explore this world even further, but by committing to low stakes and a low scale, he maximizes the impact of his storytelling.
Whannell, who previously directed Insidious: The Last Key and wrote several Saw movies, has a directorial style that slowly develops as the film progresses. At first, his work behind the camera matches the simple nature of the story, establishing the players and the narrative in an understated, efficient fashion.
But when the time comes to unleash the action, that’s your cue as an audience member to strap in. The filmmaker opts for a distinct hyperkinetic flair, matching the camera with Grey’s movements and further immersing the viewer in the experience. It’s brilliant, breathtaking stuff.
Surprising Bursts Of Comedy & Astonishing Carnage
But it’s not all doom and futuristic gloom. There’s an unexpected strain of comedy that runs through Upgrade, and it emerges during some particularly effective moments. Much of it is tied to Logan Marshall-Green‘s star performance, which, like Whannell‘s style, evolves and changes as Grey’s journey continues.
At first, the Prometheus actor uses this gruff, overly macho voice that feels deeply inauthentic, distracting from the character at hand. Thankfully for us, once Grey undergoes the STEM procedure, Marshall-Green switches gears and delivers something frantic, funny, and deeply sympathetic.
Put in simpler terms, the actor basically rattles off a litany of hilarious one-liners, mostly in response to whatever bizarre and violent event is happening on screen at the moment. The film mainly exists in Grey’s orbit, and without Marshall-Green‘s hugely charismatic performance, Upgrade wouldn’t work nearly as well. The supporting cast is strong too, with Betty Gabriel‘s empathetic, but tough-as-nails cop stealing scenes and Harrison Gilbertson‘s Dane DeHaan impression serving as a thoroughly creepy big-screen presence.
However, it’s the critical humorous touch that mainly supplements the violence, which reaches a level of extremity that we rarely see in mainstream films these days. The mayhem in Upgrade is scrappy, brutal, and realistic in its gory explosiveness, though it never feels intense or disturbing in any way. Whannell loves his fake blood and shock factor kills, clearly playing around with makeup effects and audience expectations. In the end, these bursts of spectacular carnage make Upgrade feel pulpy and viciously entertaining, the kind of movie that never softens the blow for the viewer.
Upgrade pulls off a fairly major twist in its final minutes, though that surprise is undercut by the suddenness of the ending. Whannell‘s film isn’t without its share of missteps, and by deliberately working on such a minor scale, the sci-fi thriller hasn’t lingered on my mind in any significant way.
But even with those flaws, Upgrade is more than worth the watch, a gleefully nasty film that relies on a unique mixture of beautiful futuristic landscapes and old-school grindhouse fun. It’s small, it’s violent, and it gets the job done.
What did you think of Upgrade? Did you enjoy its blend of high-concept sci-fi and grindhouse-style violence? Let us know in the comments below!
Upgrade was released in the US on June 1, 2018 and will be released in the UK on August 31, 2018. For all international release dates, see here.
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