Upgrade is a roller coaster of a movie, just not in a joyride sense. I found myself tangoing with Upgrade more than anything. For most of the film, I was impressed by the look and feel of its slick production values. Eventually, I found myself sucked into the movie and was entertained and delighted. Unfortunately, the film takes an unfortunate twist within a twist and left me cold.
At the heart of Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade is a story as old as the genre of science fiction itself; the Frankenstein monster story. Who among us, cannot relate to the island of agony and loneliness felt by that oh so tragic figure. It is the monster’s humanity that reaches across time and varying mediums that somehow touches us and unites us. Nothing dulls the impact of Mary Shelly’s classic story of otherness then telling it through the lens of a straight white dudebro.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mechanic. A job we see, which is quickly being eradicated by self-driving cars. He is a stay at home husband. Grey’s wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is the breadwinner, and the two share an easy and flirtatious relationship.
Whannell’s script gets off to a rocky start. For starters, Grey and Asha’s marriage serves little purpose but to show us how happy they both are. I realize Upgrade is a movie built around a man avenging his dead wife. But even then we have to believe they would at least swipe left for the other.
When Asha returns home in her self-driving car she gets out and thanks the car. Grey laughs and says “You realize you’re talking to a car right?” By itself, this line isn’t bad. It illustrates the different relationships the two have with technology. Except immediately afterward, the two walk into their fully automated house and she begins conversing with the house, and so does Grey.
At no point during Upgrade do we get the sense that Grey is at all uncomfortable living in this house that talks to him and obeys commands from him. Yet, he’s set up, and indeed the film’s whole message is predicated, on Grey’s uneasy relationship with technology. Possibly Whannell wanted to show a nuanced relationship to fully demonstrate the paradoxical nature of most people’s technophobia. The problem is Grey himself isn’t that nuanced, and neither is Upgrade.
Grey rebuilds classic cars from home as a side job. His latest client is the eccentric tech billionaire, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After dropping the car off at Eron’s house, their self-driving car takes a detour. The car crashes. They are pulled from the wreckage by a gang of thugs led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie). The men shoot Asha in the chest, killing her. Then shoot Grey in the neck paralyzing him.
Whannell sets the story in the future. When precisely it’s never specified, and I liked that. It’s not the near future. At the same time, it’s not the far-off future of say Blade Runner. Upgrade exists in the happy intermediate future. Technology has made advancements and self-driving cars, while ubiquitous, are not the sole mode of transportation.
As Upgrade trudges along in its opening act, I found myself more curious about the way of life on the edges of the frame. Grey and Asha’s car crashes in the film’s version of skid row. Tents and displaced peoples populate the edges of the screen.
Whannell shows the people on the margins but never comments on them. You could make the argument that he’s trying to say how technology is heralded as the silver bullet to our societal woes but in many ways, it only exacerbates them. Grey, after all, is distrustful of technology. We get the sense it goes beyond the fact that it caused his job to become obsolete. Grey goes through a period of moroseness and suicidal depression.
Eron visits Grey in the hospital and tells him he has something that will help him walk. A chip that implanted in his neck will connect his nerves to his brain. Grey reluctantly agrees and lo and behold the chip works. The program, Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) once given permission, can take over Grey’s body and turn him into the ultimate fighting machine.
One problem I had with Upgrade was the murder of Asha. This is the third movie in a row in which I’ve seen the wife/love interest, who also happens to be a woman of color, murdered. Their death causing the male character to go on a quest. Some people call it fridging. I call it stupid, lazy writing. Roger Ebert called it the “Joel Silver Rule.” “All Women in action-adventure flicks are extraneous to the plot unless naked or dead.”
After having Stem implanted into his spine, Grey goes to the police station and meets Cortez (Betty Gabriel). A character I liked immediately. Cortez was the first character who seemed to actually have more than one emotion. But because she was a woman and not white I also began to internally lay odds she didn’t make it out of the film alive. Sadly, had I been a betting man, I would be a few dollars richer.
Stem and Grey begin to hunt and punish the men responsible for Asha’s death. I must confess here is where I began to enjoy Upgrade despite my criticisms. The beginning of Upgrade is laborious and self-serious that we begin to settle in for a dreary time. But Whannell switches gears and begins to allow a sense of humor to seep into scenes.
Upgrade forgets all about its pretenses and becomes the joyous and exploitatively gruesome tale of a bionic man on a vengeance quest. When Upgrade is more concerned with upping the body count and introducing us to new ways to kill people it somehow also begins to better illustrate it’s point. Grey wanders the city looking for the men who killed his wife. As he does, he visits bars that have no technology. Houses that look like houses look now but with a few technological gizmos. In effect, we begin to see the different classes and how they utilize these new resources and how they are both helpful and easier to manipulate.
Grey and Stem begin to form a relationship like something out of those buddy cop dog movies from the eighties. They track one of the men, Serk (Richard Cawthorne) to his house. Grey then finds himself outmuscled and outmatched and calls on Stem. What follows is what happens if the bionic man obeyed the laws of physics. A violent and bloody near decapitation to which Grey has a very real and surprising reaction to. Rare do we see men go out on a vengeance spree only to stumble early on when faced with the consequences of their vengeance.
Whannell cuts between Grey and Stem hunting down bad guys and Cortez hunting down Grey. She’s not an idiot. Curious as to why Grey always happens to be seen in the area when one of these people are murdered, Cortez begins to investigate Grey. Curiously the bodies seem to be the men who belonged to the gang who killed his wife. There’s also a subplot about how these men have military grade weaponry implanted in their arms. Making them essentially walking, talking, killing machines.
Stem and Grey deduce that these men must be taking orders. I also deduced this and using the law of averages was able to figure out who. I was even able to predict the twist within the twist. None of this important though. Whether something is predictable or unpredictable hardly means anything if the story is told well enough.
Visually, the story is fine, in fact, better than fine. Stefan Duscio, the cinematographer, imbues Upgrade with what I can only describe as a techno-pop aesthetic. Marshall-Green seems perpetually soaked in sweat and grime yet the world he inhabits feels like the lighting has been inspired by Dick Tracy. A palette of neon primary colors contrasted with wonderful sharp angles and a lively camera that is able to make shots of Grey standing up feel visceral.
Marshall-Green is a likable star but he has little to do. I was impressed by his physicality. In the early scenes, he jerks about trying to adapt to Stem. To his credit, he keeps that lurching gait throughout the film unless being controlled by Stem.
The craft of Upgrade is a gas and gorgeous to take in. But Marshall-Green can only do so much and the script which plays at exploring technophobia never really does more than brush up against it. Upgrade feels like a mash-up of a dozen other films. All of them more worthwhile than Upgrade ultimately ends up being.