Upgrade is a film, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, that is set in the not-so-distant future where autonomous cars dominate the roadways (in a much more technologically advanced fashion than anything currently existing, like Tesla’s autopilot system) and artificial intelligence far exceeds the likes of our modern-day Alexa or Siri. The film follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who spends his days refurbishing old muscle cars for high-end clients and listening to music on vinyl (such as the classic blues song “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf) – he is “vintage” and proud of it. When Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) get into a car accident, a group of criminals kill Asha and leave Grey paralyzed. Grey is then offered a unique opportunity by Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), one of Grey’s clients and a wealthy whiz-kid technology innovator. Eron offers to implant Grey with a biomechanical enhancement chip called STEM that will allow Grey full functionality of his body again. This quickly proves to be the miracle Grey was waiting for, but upon discovering a wealth of additional abilities that are afforded to him via STEM, Grey sets out on a revenge spree in the name of his wife to bring the men who killed her to some form of justice. Chaos ensues as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) begins taking more and more control over Grey’s actions.
I will point out for you now that Upgrade is not a cinematic masterpiece or a film that will go down in the history books as a “classic.” However, the movies finds itself in my personal Top 10 this year because it is visually stimulating and energetic and simply provides some of the very most fun I have had watching a movie this past year – that experience I had was worth the entry at No. 7. The movie is produced by Blumhouse Productions, a studio which has notably put out horror franchises like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge – it has also produced the likes of Whiplash, Get Out, and 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. Additionally, the writer/director has a rich background in horror, penning the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all three Insidious films (the most recent of which he also directed). I recite the filmographies of Upgrade’s creative vessels to point out that in Upgrade, this vast horror/thriller acumen plays a central role in the film’s success.
Upgrade consists of an interesting mixture of film genres that all come together spectacularly to form an exhilarating movie – it is equal parts science-fiction, horror, action, and thriller. (It also features a dose of an appropriate amount of humor, most notably via sarcastic and witty banter between Grey and the inner voice of STEM that only Grey can hear.) Although this movie highlights these elements of various genres in a way that builds upon tropes that you will have no doubt seen many times over in previous films, I assure you that Upgrade still feels new and refreshing.
The movie is premised on the classic theme of “humans vs. robots,” and the technological advances depicted on screen are enjoyable, which includes characters with guns built into their arms, making for some action-packed shooting scenes. Whannell’s exploration of this theme is vivid and presents a world in which the rapid advancement of technology becomes increasingly dangerous. This is where Upgrade thrives the most – the film employs high-tech weaponry and artificial intelligence to tap into rousing scenes of adventure and gore, with the help of active cinematography and visually arresting action stunts/choreography.
The film’s casting is also spot-on for a movie of this nature. Logan Marshall-Green is fantastic in his role as Grey, authentically depicting the character’s immense resistance to modern technology – Marshall-Green skillfully executes Grey’s sardonic dialogue and demeanor. Although only featured in a supporting role, I was notably impressed by Harrison Gilbertson’s performance as Eron Keen – Eron is eccentric to the point that it borders on creepy, and Gilbertson neatly portrays Eron’s tendencies to appear both vainly confident and frantically vulnerable. Upgrade is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.
Upgrade trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9fXbkiKfmY