Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade is a wonderful and devilish little concoction of a film. At its center is Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an old-fashioned “works with his hands” kind of guy who restores old cars in a near-future where all of the cars drive themselves. After an accident leaves him a quadriplegic, one of his more wealthy and influential clients offers to help him by implanting an experimental chip in his brain called STEM that will allow him to walk again.
It works. And then the chip starts talking to him.
Already, we see familiar elements at play, especially in terms of the plot. There’s the eccentric computer programmer with the mysterious experimental technology he wants to test out, the idea of augmenting humans with cybernetics, and a time-tested revenge plot to tie it all together. The innovation of Upgrade does not come from its plot.
Even on a more abstract plane, Upgrade seems to borrow heavily from other films. The protagonist becoming part machine and losing some piece of his humanity in the process is right out of Robocop. But, so is the peculiar tone – both violent and sardonic. Upgrade also ponders on the nature of artificial intelligence and its opinion of its progenitor, much like Ex Machina. I despise the lazy reviews of films that are nothing more than, “It’s Movie A meets Movie B!”, so I want to make clear: Upgrade may adopt elements of other films, but the peculiar mixture that it arrives at is all its own – good and bad.
From the perspective of the plot alone, Upgrade is a little weak. Its skeleton is a revenge plot: Grey wants to justice for the people who injured him, and his newfound augmentations will certainly aid in his quest. There are some questionable plot turns that strain the suspension of disbelief, and many of the “twists” are broadcast from miles away. Still, it is a damn entertaining story, and most of that has to do with it’s peculiar stylistic choices.
The fun of Upgrade lay in the unexpected way that the action sequences unfold, with a significant assist to the dry absurdist tone that accompanies them. I’ll refrain from explaining too much for those who have not seen the film, but the first action scene in Upgrade is perhaps the most fun I had in a cinema in 2018. I am not saying that it is the best, most rewarding, or even the most innovative. But once it was clear what was happening, the crowd I saw the film with positively lost it. Everyone was laughing and cheering and shaking their heads at the perfect absurdity.
The performances in Upgrade aren’t really anything to write home about. Logan Marshall-Green feel like a budget Tom Hardy, never quite able to master the material handed to him. Some performances are pretty hammy, and not in that special way that conveys to the audience that it was by choice. Even if it was, the director probably should have asked for more takes.
The only performance completely above reproach is the one delivered by Simon Maiden as the voice of the computer chip (STEM). It is reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson in Her, in that an actor that never appears on screen delivers the best performance. Also, both films intimately investigate the interactions between artificial intelligences and the humans that create them. Upgrade has fewer orgasms though.
You’ll probably not see Upgrade on many year-end “Best of” lists, but at the end of the day it will rub a lot of spectators the right way. It is folly to predict what films will end up enjoying a “cult” status, but Upgrade has great potential. It’s imperfect, but showcases clear talent. Even though it’s rough around the edges, it has obvious charms that some viewers will completely buy into. I know I did.