Image from Screengeek
You probably wouldn’t expect much from the writer of the first three Saw films and the director of the third Insidious. Leigh Whannell’s new sci-fi drama Upgrade exceeds such low expectations if you were concerned about his admittingly lucrative resume. If you are looking for a decent film to watch before the next big summer tentpole, whether it be Incredibles 2, Jurassic World 2, or Ant-Man 2, Upgrade is a safe and occasionally surprising bet.
Grey Trace lives in the not too distant future, next Sunday A.D., as a man living in the past. That being a voluntary lack of any technological augmentations to his body, unlike his wife Asha. He loves using his own hands and natural skills to build and maintain old cars in a time when self-driving cars are taking over in an increasingly, ominously automated world. But soon a sudden tragedy causes him to lose his wife and his ability to move his body, leaving him with rage and suicidal sorrow. With help from a man that hired him to build a antique car, he gets the chance through that technology to get his mobility back and more than he could possibly imagine.
Upgrade has been described by critics as a “good B-movie”. Nothing about the film strikes me as necessarily of that quality, except perhaps that it is much less expensive than films of its style. The acting is competent or exceedingly great such as Logan Marshall-Green’s Grey. The use of cinematography, especially in the fleeting and brutal action sequences are top of the line. It does seem like a call-back to older sci-fi films, particularly the 70s, that dealt with commentary on current or possible future concerns. Films like Silent Running, Logan’s Run, and Soylent Green come to mind. The most obvious throwback is the 70s show, The Six Million Dollar Man, with advanced technology making Grey far more agile and powerful than the average person. It also reminds me of Spike Jonze’s Her, a much more recent film.
Both Her and Upgrade feature an artificial intelligence without a body communicating to a lone male protagonist, and both are reflections on where we might be going. With the help of STEM, Grey can not only walk and move again, he can help get revenge on those who killed his wife. While a potpourri of references to other works, it doesn’t really feel like it’s stealing, more like a friendly borrowing to make its own identity.
Upgrade is at it’s most enjoyable when it focuses on Grey and Stem’s interaction with each other, at times almost feeling like it’s a buddy action movie, especially in the early fights. The pitch black humor of many of these scenes creates a convincing mask to the darker events that will transpire down the road. While there is definitely action, I wouldn’t call it an action film. Last year’s wonderful Blade Runner 2049 had action sequences but that never was the focus like its predecessor. It’s more of a hard sci-fi that grows into a horror film before you even realize what’s happening. For all the plot beats you can see coming a thousand miles away, some are more deceptively sneaky than you would think, especially again, from the writer of Saw 1-3.
It’s probably not a film that’s worth watching more than once, at least immediately, though it could be fun to search for the clues hidden within the feature. It’s rather laid back pace, especially the time it takes for Stem to actually be implanted inside Grey may be off-putting for those wanting a faster paced ride. The best success the film has for me personally, aside from its well crafted narrative is its use of gore. Whannell, despite writing films that were all about the lurid enjoyment of gory traps, shows some surprising restraint this time around. Yes, there is some very gory moments in Upgrade, but the lack of gratuity or number of cases in which it happens makes those same moments much more alarming when they do occur. It never feel tacked on and that may actually make it more unsettling.
It’s worth a watch, especially on home video or streaming, and it gives more food for thought in an age in which we are reaching new levels of crippling uncertainty about the path we collectively walk. It’s still good food for thought and it’s better to have than have not.