Movie Review: Upgrade.
Upgrade is a niche action-thriller/body horror film that will satisfy fans of those genres.
Upgrade is the type of movie that could be described as “the perfect gift, for some occasions.” The trailer promises a near-future vision where bleeding edge tech is universal, and universally dangerous. Like a “homes of tomorrow” PSA directed by David Cronenberg, Upgrade takes a very dim view of AI, self-driving cars, and anything robotic. This dystopia informs the pessimism of our protagonist who is thrust into a high-tech revenge story against his will, and horrified by what he finds on the other end of the uncanny valley. If you don’t mind such a bleak world view, Upgrade will reward you with some excellent action sequences, cool cinematography, and a hearty helping of body horror, all wrapped up in a tight little package.
Gray is an old fashioned man in a new fashioned world, grudgingly restoring and selling vintage cars for the tech billionaires who can afford them. His wife Asha is a big-wig in a robotics company whose earnings keeps them in some pretty lavish digs, while much of the population is out of work. On the way back from delivering one of his prized muscle cars to an enigmatic tech mogul, Asha and Gray are attacked by cybernetically enhanced mercenaries. Asha is killed and Gray is left paralyzed. The tech mogul who bought Gray’s car approaches him with a Faustian bargain: undergo illegal surgery to implant an AI in his spine and get a chance at revenge, but he can never reveal to the outside world that he is no longer paralyzed.
Logan Marshall-Green plays Gray, and delivers a distinctive performance. Gray is a prickly individual, and he’s not out to be likable. Marshall-Green conveys this quite well, but also find ways to make him relatable. His emotional fragility in the wake of losing his wife, his mobility, and later his no-tech purity all come across convincingly. He is also fun to watch when his actions are being controlled by the AI, STEM. He moves in an insect-like blend of efficient and unnatural motions. His action sequences are very well choreographed and pulled off as well. It was a nice surprise, since I was not impressed with his role in Prometheus. In Upgrade, he’s really effective.
The rest of the cast is mostly serviceable, which is a shame since actress Betty Gabriel (Get Out) is talented but just not given enough to do as a police detective working Asha’s murder case. Harrison Gilbertson is too quirky as the savant AI programmer who gives Gray his mobility back. Benedict Hardie is fun as the main antagonist mercenary, but the role is fairly one note and could have been much more nuanced and therefore more frightening.
Turning Inside Out.
You get the sense that the cinematographers set out to have fun in Upgrade. The camera pivots and whirls around the action, rotating in giddy manner when Gray is doing his hyper-human acrobatics. There are a few scenes where the spinning camera trick is over-used and slightly nauseating, but overall it comes off as cool and distinctive. The combat is reminiscent of The Bourne franchise’s style of close-up, brutal fights, but the unique camera work keeps it fresh while preventing quite a bit of the shaky-cam jiggery-pokery.
I was wondering how Upgrade was going to pay off its “body horror” elements, and the answer is sparingly but effectively. The odd way in which Gray’s body moves and contorts is matched by how incongruous Marshall-Green’s facial expressions are. You can see that he’s not in control and it is both a power trip and a horrific experience for him. The film does have some big, bloody moments – usually at the climax of the many fight sequences, but does a good job of including small moments of body violation to keep the tone consistent. It was a small thing, but seeing how the mercs have implants that allow them to shoot from their artificial limbs and that when they load them you see the bullet kind of wriggle under their skin really gave me shivers. Overall it was a nice touch, blending in big moments with small, persistent details that reinforced the theme of loss of bodily integrity.
Black Market Goods.
Upgrade is not going to be for everyone. The themes and violence are certainly not general audience fare. There are also some problems, like cliched sci-tropes and plot elements that don’t stand up to later scrutiny, but you really only notice most of them after the film is over. While the film was running, I was all on board. The pace is lean and tight, accented with either action or horror at the right moments to pull you along. The pervasive themes of high-tech dystopia and body horror tie the whole together from start to finish. As such, I was impressed and pleased. In a season with needless sequels and spin-offs, I actually finished Upgrade wanting more of what director Leigh Whannell (SAW franchise) was offering.