Upgrade is a sci-fi thriller with a clever premise that has the guts to mostly follow the implications of its setup all the way to its conclusion. There are many times it could have taken the easy path to become a derivative action movie, but it never does. Even though it is pretty violent, it is actually interested in its story. It is also exciting and very entertaining.
The film is about Grey Trace, a car mechanic in a future where nearly everything is computerized. You would think that would make Grey’s job obsolete. In fact, he only has one client. That is Eron, who runs a company specializing in groundbreaking technology. After Grey is seriously injured in an accident, Eron comes to him with a tantalizing offer: he will be given an experimental implant that has the ability to fix his body. Of course, there are complications.
Upgrade (94 minutes, minus the end credits) starts slow, with a prolonged introduction to the protagonist and his world. Once Grey is upgraded, the plot takes off and never slows down again. Though it is an action movie, it does not completely abandon its ideas in favor of gore (which the film has plenty of). The action is in service of the story instead of the other way around. This means it is central to what is going on with Grey. It is not just violence for its own sake. That is a huge credit to the screenplay by director Leigh Whannell. Upgrade has echoes of many other sci-fi stories. It is his approach that makes it seem unique. He may have been influenced by films or writers who have come before him but, put together in Upgrade, it feels like its own beast.
Science fiction stories have long been fascinated by technological developments. Since our society keeps advancing in that direction, we keep giving writers new ideas. Do the potential risks of depending so strongly on computers outweigh the benefits? Upgrade sort of tries to answer that question. It is much heavier on the fiction than the science, yet the story works because Whannell begins with a clear idea (a ridiculous one he treats with relative seriousness) and never detours away from it. He opens by establishing a world where humans allow computers to run their lives for them. Then, he introduces a character distrustful of computers, makes him sympathetic and throws him into a plot where he has to rely on a computer to stay alive. Everything here has a purpose and that focus is one of the film’s biggest assets.
Another of its big assets is the lead performance by Logan Marshall-Green as Grey. It would have been unsurprising for him to be overwhelmed by the spectacle, but he plays Grey as a man trying to figure out where his life goes next, as opposed to an action hero. He is both mentally and physically damaged and now must go against his beliefs to survive. The way the character evolves is surprisingly subtle for a production that is generally not very subtle. The writing is good, however it is as successful as it is due in part to Marshall-Green’s skill as an actor.
Upgrade is a fun, exciting, science fiction movie. It has brutally violent fight scenes and a cool plot. This will not go down as innovative, thought provoking, sci-fi. Though it starts with ideas, it does not really develop them much in its second half. Still, it is far more thoughtful than I expected from what sounded like an action thriller with a mildly interesting b-movie premise. Upgrade is all the more impressive because it makes what it does seem easy even on its small budget.
4 out of 5
Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace
Betty Gabriel as Cortez
Harrison Gilbertson as Eron
Benedict Hardie as Fisk
Richard Cawthorne as Serk
Simon Maiden as Stem (Voice)
Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell