'Upgrade' Is Pulpy Sci-Fi Action At Its Very Best

By James Jay Edwards
Released: June 1, 2018
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Set in the near-future, technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when Grey, a self-identified technophobe, has his world turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant called Stem.

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Film Review
As the writer of the first few Saw movies and the entire Insidious franchise, Leigh Whannell is best known as James Wan's sidekick, but he did make his directorial debut a couple of years back when he took the reins of Insidious: Chapter 3. Now, the writer/director brings fans his sophomore feature effort, the sci-fi thriller Upgrade.

Upgrade takes place in a slightly futuristic world of cars that drive themselves and criminals who implant guns into their arms. A mechanic/automobile restorer named Grey Trace (The Invitation's Logan Marshall-Green) is attacked one night by a group of thugs who kill his wife (Melanie Vallejo from "Winners & Losers") and leave him a quadriplegic. One of his classic car clients, a reclusive tech millionaire named Eron (Need for Speed's Harrison Gilbertson), makes Grey an offer he can't refuse; he wants to implant a sentient microchip called Stem into his spine that will reconnect his brain synapses and allow him to walk again.

Upgrade, photo courtesy BH Tilt.

The illegal operation is a success, and Grey finds himself able to walk. The only side effect is that he now hears the voice of Stem (The Dressmaker's Simon Maiden) directly in his brain. Stem follows Grey's commands, but is also able to take over when needed, so Grey becomes a powerful being with ninja-like reflexes and skills. Grey's first impulse is to get revenge on his wife's killers, so with Stem's help, he tracks down the criminals one-by-one. As he's assassinating the assassins, Eron comes after him in order to protect his investment. As if that wasn't enough, Grey/Stem also has to stay one step ahead of a police detective named Cortez (Betty Gabriel from Get Out and The Purge: Election Year) who has been assigned his wife's case and has become aware of his vengeful plan.

The initially convoluted plot of Upgrade turns simple very quickly, as the sci-fi technological drama shifts gears into a good, old-fashioned revenge flick once it hits its stride about a third of the way in. And there's no stopping it from that point. The hero is flawed yet justified, the villains are mean and nasty, and the violence is quick and brutal. Upgrade is too slick and polished for it to be considered a grindhouse exploitation movie, but its heart is in the right place, and the film checks all the right boxes to satisfy both action and horror fans alike.

Upgrade, photo courtesy BH Tilt.

The world in which Upgrade takes place is one of those worlds that exists about a week into the future, where initially everything looks like present day, then the façade is shaken by the appearance of an all-seeing eye implant or an omnipresent law enforcement drone. The almost-here technology helps to establish the character of Grey, as he works to restore classic gas-powered automobiles and drinks cheap beer straight from the bottle while the rest of the world relies on robots and computers. He's a throwback guy, so once he's implanted with Stem, there's little doubt in anyone's mind that he's going to go after his wife's killers. It's just a matter of whether or not he and Stem are strong enough - and smart enough - to pull it off. And, because the viewers see the event that triggers his blood lust, they are emotionally on board with his actions, rooting him on the whole time. Classic revenge movie stuff.

What Upgrade boils down to being is a pulpy action movie in science fiction adventure clothing. While it's techy and neon-splashed enough to sell the Blade Runner 2049 angle, it's also exciting enough to play the John Wick card. However, it expertly walks a fine line between the two, so it remains something completely original and unique. And it's damn entertaining.
The musical score for Upgrade is exactly what it needs to be. The electronic soundtrack was composed by Jed Palmer (The Infinite Man, OtherLife), and it features pounding rhythms combined with pulsing melodies in a John Carpenter-meets-Disasterpeace way. But the really fascinating thing about Palmer's score is how it works in tandem with the sound design of P.K. Hooker (The Shallows, Lights Out) so that every phone ring, every computer beep, every techno-whir seems to be incorporated into the musical soundtrack. It all results in a trippy, sci-fi soundscape that keeps reminding the viewer that the movie is set in the Future (with a capital F).

Upgrade, photo courtesy BH Tilt.
Action Sequences
The fight scenes in Upgrade are incredible to watch. While Grey is in control, they're just typical combat scenes, and he winds up getting the short end of the stick more often than not. But, the fun begins when Stem takes over. Since Stem can predict what Grey's opponent is going to do, Grey's body motions (and, by extension, Logan Marshall-Green's body motions) are smooth and fluid, almost as if the scenes were filmed in slow motion and sped up to give Grey his lightning reflexes. It's not that The Matrix-esque freeze-frame technique. It's all in real time, but Grey's ducking and dodging, his punching and kicking, basically all of his movements are impressively rubbery and perfectly choreographed (and, quite possibly, aided a bit by the editing and visual effects teams). However it's done, it's effective. It essentially looks like Grey's body has been taken over by a computer, which is exactly how it's supposed to look.

Upgrade, photo courtesy BH Tilt.

Action, Comedy, Horror
Release Date
June 1, 2018
MPAA Rating
Production Designer
Casting Director
Music Score