Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson
Runtime: 95 Minutes
As loaded as the summer has been with extravagant blockbuster thrill rides and action pictures, it’s great to see original smaller scale genre projects such as Hotel Artemis finding some love and attention in the in-between spaces of superhero movies and major franchise releases.
Upgrade is in a similarly unique mould of a modestly budgeted action film set in a fleshed out near future world, but injected with a splattery body horror twist more in keeping with the previous works of writer/director Leigh Whannell.
It follows Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, a stay-at-home mechanic who feels at odds with the increasingly automated and tech-reliant future that his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is working toward. After a violent yet strategically planned mugging that leaves Asha dead and Grey paralysed, he is infused with an AI chip called STEM – created by shady tech giant Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) – that can serve as an auxiliary brain to restore his motor functions.
With this new-found mobility and the power of an artificial intelligence chip (voiced by Simon Maiden doing his best HAL 9000 impression), he takes it upon himself to hunt down those responsible, and in doing so uncover the fairly obvious conspiracy at the heart of it.
But the mystery is not the draw here, rather it’s the hook of its premise that allows the film to indulge in some uniquely staged and physically inventive action sequences.
You see, not only can STEM aid in allowing Grey to walk again, STEM can also override his motor functions in times of crisis to aid in fights with inhuman efficiency and ruthlessly effective results. More or less making him a passenger in his own body during these scenes, the manner in which the heavily choreographed fights and movements are shot using a distinctive Steadicam method that aids in making it looks as otherworldly and strangely static as it would appear from Grey’s perspective.
It’s ingeniously utilised here, and the fusion that it makes with the gruesome body horror elements of over the top violence makes it one of the most unique looking action films in years that has to be seen to be believed. The violence, in particular, is well executed for maximum shock value, and how Leigh Whannell deliberately paces the first half and fleshes out the tiny details of the world make it all the more satisfying when he finally starts delivering on the core selling point.
What helps is the way in which Logan Marshall-Green performs all this, throwing dark comedy to proceedings as Grey (in the first sequence at least) loudly panics as STEM performs horrific countermoves to save his life, as well as his strange to and fro conversations with a voice only he can hear.
Marshall-Green is really fantastic here at not only balancing the comedy with genuine emotion and turmoil, as is his physical performance as STEM after the incident in which all of his movements are made just a tad stiffer and more robotic. The supporting cast is solid as well, including Betty Gabriel as the detective assigned to the case.
Upgrade is a brutal and energetic delight that doesn’t feel the need to stand for much else beyond its set-up and imaginative execution. There are ideas at play involving the drastic nature of physical augmentation and humanity’s detachment from reality at the hands of technology, but it’s the fine dressing to a resourceful B-movie that knows how to get the most out of its budget.