UPGRADE is a wickedly funny, unassumingly smart, and ultra gory slice of cyberpunk. As is usually the case in this sort of sci-fi tale, nothing is ever as it seems and nobody is to be trusted…except maybe your mother.
The film opens up with Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a freelance mechanic in the not too distant future. He’s an analog man in a digital world. Nostalgia and fetishism for outdated technology lead Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) to the home of tech genius Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) who commissioned Grey to put together a classic American muscle car for his collection. On their trip home, Ash is killed and Grey is left paralyzed from the neck down. Eron comes to his rescue with a new technology known as Stem—nothing more than a small computer chip—that when implanted, will give Grey the use of his limbs again. Put under the care of his doting mother, Grey begins to learn that the death of his wife and his being paralyzed may have been more than just an accident; he starts a journey where everything is not quite as it seems.
And that’s where the fun begins.
UPGRADE kicks into high gear and the ultra violent revenge tale comes alive, reveling in its B-movie pedigree. Stem, who as a character is nothing more than the disembodied voice of Simon Maiden (think of a bloodthirsty Amazon Alexa) kickstarts a bloody path of revenge for Grey. Stem can control Grey’s limb on his own which alleviates some of his misgivings about the gruesome violence he inflicts on the bad guys. There are a number of quality kills throughout the film, but the film’s wry sense of humor keeps the relatively dark film from ever getting too dour. Writer director Leigh Whannell—best known for penning a few SAW and INSIDIOUS sequels—really stretches his comic muscles on the script. The relationship between Stem and Grey recalls that of your best buddy cop actioners of the ‘80s and ‘90s with Marshall Green taking on the straight man role and Stem—never too jokey with an almost Vulcan like straightness—delivering the funniest lines. The dynamic between these two characters is when Grey and Stem roll into a dive bar populated by a wretched hive of scum and villainy that deftly blends the high concept comedy, the STAR WARS cantina, Western influenced action beats, and gruesome gore. It’s a standout sequence. The story moves along like a video game with Grey and Stem taking on various bosses but it never gets tiresome or exhausting; the effects laden fight scenes and stunts are played for laughs as much as they are for exhilaration.
There’s a slick visual style to UPGRADE that knowingly recalls ‘80s graphic novels and anime. There’s plenty of grime, but it’s all so beautifully shot. There’s enough saturated reds, greens, and purples to sate the neon noir fetishists and even the grimier locations are beautiful, particularly to anyone who digs ‘80s cyberpunk graphic novels and classic anime in the vein of AKIRIA. The production design is spot on, creating a beautifully ugly world that blends modern touches and futuristic flourishes: the self-driving car is a hideous hunk of junk. At its best, UPGRADE recalls an HBO Thursday night action premiere from the ‘90s or a direct to video cult-classic; think of it as the exploitation take on Spike Jones’ HER. It’s the kind of movie that would have had all the teenagers in the neighborhood talking about it the next day in the schoolyard.
The film’s conclusion features some twists and turns that may be a little far-fetched, but it at least swings for the fences in terms of creativity. There are any number of ways that this film could have ended, and none of it would have really mattered because getting there is 100% of the fun. UPGRADE takes its story seriously, but never itself.
–Mike Vanderbilt (@MikeVanderbilt)