Logan Marshall-Green plays a quadriplegic who regains his mobility thanks to an implanted computer chip in Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller.
That such ’80s-era films as The Terminator and Robocop were an inspiration becomes instantly apparent in the latest directorial effort from Leigh Whannell (veteran of the Saw and Insidious franchises). Infusing its familiar dystopian sci-fi tropes with stylishly gonzo, low-budget filmmaking and inventive narrative flourishes, Upgrade proves far more entertaining than it has a right to be.
The futuristic revenge thriller revolves around the blandly named (intentionally) character Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an automobile mechanic whose disdain for technology is signaled by his listening to music on vinyl. Grey’s Luddite tendencies don’t interfere with his loving relationship with his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), who works at a high-tech firm and has outfitted their house with state-of-the-art technology.
One evening, Grey asks his wife to accompany him on a late-night visit to a private client, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), an eccentric billionaire tech entrepreneur who lives in a lavish underground home. Eron proudly shows off his latest creation, a computer chip called STEM that he promises will change the world. While returning home, the couple’s self-driving car goes haywire and crashes in a crime-ridden area where they’re attacked by a gang of thugs. Asha is shot dead, while Grey is left a quadriplegic.
And that’s when the story really kicks in. The severely depressed Grey wants nothing more than to end his life, a feat he finds difficult to accomplish without being able to move his limbs. When Eron stops by his hospital room and offers to restore his mobility by implanting STEM in his body, Grey reluctantly agrees.
The physical results are miraculous. But Grey’s euphoria proves short-lived when he discovers that the computer chip in his body can talk to him, addressing him in a very human voice that only he can hear. With Grey’s stated approval, STEM can also take full control of his body, giving him newfound fighting skills and an imperviousness to pain that comes in handy when he decides to track down the criminals responsible for killing his wife and get revenge.
Forced to keep his newfound mobility a secret from the female detective (Betty Gabriel) investigating his case, Grey begins a series of nocturnal excursions that bring him closer and closer to the group’s villainous mastermind (Benedict Hardie), who clearly has some technological bodily advantages of his own, including the ability to kill a man by merely sneezing on him.
The storyline swirling together plot elements of Robocop and Death Wish, not to mention myriad other films, proves less important than the stylistic flair and humor with which the concept is brought off. Upgrade turns into a perverse buddy comedy, one in which the crime-busting partners happen to be sharing a body. STEM (vividly voiced by Simon Maiden) interacts with Grey in the same sort of formal, solicitous manner as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He’s not above upbraiding Grey at times, though, such as when his human host gets too carried away with his impressive, computer-generated fighting ability.
“Do not get overconfident, Grey,” STEM chides in the middle of a violent struggle.
Indeed, it’s the fight sequences that prove the film’s highlights. Much of the credit must go to fight choreographer Chris Weir and to Marshall-Green. The actor’s stiffly robotic and yet kinetic physicality in the scenes when STEM takes over his character’s body is a hoot. Beyond this, his intense, emotionally committed performance throughout provides the pic much of its effectiveness.
The storyline becomes overly convoluted at times, with the series of plot revelations toward the conclusion having a forced feel. But its flaws don’t prevent Upgrade from being a highly entertaining B-movie, one whose cleverness even extends to the unique opening credits.
Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Goalpost Pictures
Distributor: BH Tilt
Cast: Marshall Logan-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Simon Maiden, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Linda Cropper
Director-screenwriter: Leigh Whannel
Producers: Jason Blum, Kylie Du Fresne, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Executive producers: Rosemary Blight, Ben Grant
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Felicity Abbott
Editor: Andy Canny
Composer: Jed Palmer
Costume designer: Maria Pattison
Casting: Nikki Barrett, Terri Taylor
Rated R, 95 minutes