TL;DR – Bloody, gory, and brutal, yet also funny, insightful, and emotional. It blends an interesting concept, with great acting, and fantastic cinematography to create a really compelling work of cinema.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
I walked into Upgrade not really knowing what to expect, I knew about some chip in some guys back and the death of his wife but nothing much else. What I was not expecting was to see a deeply emotional work of art, which does so much with its shoestring budget that I was shocked to see it only cost five million to make. It delves into the world of post-humanism that we are rapidly approaching as technology and biology blend together. But with all that at its heart is a story about a man losing everything he loves and trying to live in a world where nothing will bring the love of his life back.
So to set the scene, in the not so distant future in an unnamed American city we open in on Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) a technician that restores old cars for wealthy clients. He grew up in the poor section of the city but escaped that life when he found the love of his life, now wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) who is an executive for a bio-robotics company that helps create prosthetics for wounded soldiers. They live a happy life helped by the fact that Asha earns a lot of money for her job, and Grey is doing what he loves working with his hands. All of this changes one day after Grey and Asha dropped off a restored car to one of Grey’s rich clients Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). As they were driving back into the city in their automated car they realised the car was not taking them home. In fact, it is taking them to the rough part of the city where the car is purposely crashed and Grey and Asha are dragged out of the car by a gang of thugs. Soon even with police drones watching overhead and with help on the way the gang shoot Asha in the stomach and Grey in the neck. Being instantly paralysed Grey can only watch as the life drains from Asha’s eyes. Three months later and Grey is out of hospital but is still a quadriplegic. While he has the technology to live in his house with the help of his mother Pamela (Linda Cropper), he has reached the point of trying to find the off switch, as even though Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) is trying there has been no progress in finding the people that killed Asha. It is here where Eron finds him and offers him a chance to walk again if he puts his new chip STEM into his back. It is a big success and Grey can walk again, but then one day STEM (Simon Maiden) talks back.
Now the first thing that really sells Upgrade is the acting which really had to do a lot of the work to sell this premise. Logan Marshall-Green had to do this interesting job of both looking terrified in his face as his body acted in a fluid and professional way. It is really hard to sell that disconnect and make it look believable but Logan just makes it work. I think part of that is the lengths they went to give him character before the chip, indeed while it was over quickly I doubt anyone would not be moved by the time between the crash and the chip where he can only move his neck. As well as this, I liked all the touches that showed that it was a computer program moving his body and not a human. All his movements are fluid but in almost an uncanny valley way, like they move with speed, efficiency, and power, but not in a way that is natural. For example, when he is walking he always turns on right angles rather than the diagonal. All of this comes to ahead in the action sequences which with the help of some great stunt doubles might be some of the best hand to hand combat sequences that I have seen so far this year. Though also just a warning that these action scenes go from 0-100 real quick and if you don’t like gore then there are a couple of moments you may want to look away.
The supporting cast was also really great, Benedict Hardie makes a great villain as Fisk, Harrison Gilbertson is channelling a slightly nervous and reclusive tech titan, also it was great to see Linda Cropper here as Grey’s mother, it is always great to see one of the Farscape alumni pop up in films. Betty Gabriel really steps up as the other side of the equation trying to hunt down the people that killed Asha but also then realising that she might not be the only one hunting them. I knew I and seen her in something recent and then it clicked that she was in Get Out (see review) our film of the year in 2017. This is such a different role but once again she shows such an amazing range, and I am shocked that she is not in all the things. Finally, this film shows just how important voice actors are as the film would not have worked nearly as well if there was not the excellent acting of Simon Maiden there to embody what is just a chip.
While the acting is one part, the other is the really creative cinematography that you see throughout the film. You see this mostly in the action sequences when STEM takes over the body of Grey and moves autonomously. The first example of this one you have probably already seen in the trailer as the camera rises with Grey off the floor, so it feels like you are rising with him. There is also the moment when Grey is shot and the camera does a 360° vertical pan flipping through the sky as Grey’s life is forever changed below. These moments elevate the film beyond just being visually interesting because they help bring the idea of a what is going on in his body to the forefront visually, and as the saying goes show don’t tell. Add to this the film has some great set design creating a world that is far in the future but also believable with what we currently understand about technology and also as I mentioned in the opening it is crazy how much they got out of such a small budget. As well as this, I also have to give credit to the musical score by Jed Palmer that soared when it needed to soar and fell into the background when it needed it to be unobtrusive. Though I will say this is a very loud film, so take caution if you have any hearing issues.
Also just before we end, I want to take a moment to show out some of the themes of the film, and things that we are dealing with at the moment or in the near future, and just a warning that there may be some slight [SPOILERS] in this paragraph. You have the rise of automation, and what does that mean for the workforce when all of the jobs become automated, this is happening today and we still do not have a good idea as to what we can do here. Also, the role of augmentation/ post-humanism, this is something that has been delved into before in films like Ghost in the Shell, I Robot, and Blade Runner, and it really works here even if it is just a side part of the narrative. When you break it all down Upgrade at its heart is a mystery film, where the mystery is who and why did they kill Asha and leave Grey for dead? Without getting too much into the specifics I was really interested in how it all worked out, and I have to give props to that really ballsy ending.
In the end, do we recommend Upgrade? Yes of course we do. The action is great, the acting is spot on, the story is intriguing, and the production is fantastic. Indeed I wish more films would take some creative risks like this, and I wish more studios would support those riskier films, and while we are at it I hope audiences go and see them. Upgrade is one of those films where I kind of think that it would be best to go see it in the cinemas if you can because I foresee it being one of those cult classics that people talk about for years to come.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Upgrade
Directed by – Leigh Whannell
Written by – Leigh Whannell
Music by – Jed Palmer
Cinematography by – Stefan Duscio
Edited by – Andy Canny
Starring – Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Simon Maiden, Harrison Gilbertson, Linda Cropper, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Christopher Kirby, Clayton Jacobson, Sachin Joab, Michael M. Foster & Richard Cawthorne
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 18A; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: na; United States: R