Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: ‘The Invisible Man’ in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with ‘Upgrade’ in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combined elements of: ‘Black Mirror,’ ‘Minority Report’ and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.
Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life, as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic: ‘Grey Trace,’ feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves ‘Grey’ paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul: ‘Eron Keen,’ who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named: ‘STEM’ that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, ‘Grey’ decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…
Originally titled: ‘STEM.’ ‘Upgrade’ was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the ‘Saw’ and ‘Insidious’ series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped-out of Wan’s shadow, ‘Upgrade’ immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut: ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ three years prior. ‘Upgrade’ also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as ‘Grey’ humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as ‘Upgrade’ is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with it’s surprisingly modest budget.
With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist: ‘Grey Trace,’ quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife: ‘Asha Grey.’ That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving ‘STEM,’ ‘Grey’ begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as ‘Eron Keen’ and the voice of: ‘STEM,’ respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving ‘STEM’ a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.
But one of the greatest parts of: ‘Upgrade’ by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio, as after obtaining ‘STEM,’ the camera itself visually reflects ‘Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement ‘Grey’ makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, ‘Upgrade’ was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of: ‘Minority Report’ and ‘The Matrix’ sequels. However, unlike those films, ‘Upgrade’ does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots, as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.
Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time, Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like ‘Upgrade.’ As the electronic score echoes films like ‘Blade Runner’ during its quieter moments through tracks such as: ‘Aftermath’ and ‘A Better Place,’ before the more action-orientated cues kick in with tracks like ‘We Can’t Let Them Win.’ The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.
On that note, ‘Upgrade’s absurdly well-executed action set-pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time, as not only does the camera ceaselessly track ‘Grey,’ as previously mentioned, but the choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of: ‘Upgrade’s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, ‘The Upgraded’ (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.
To conclude, even though ‘Upgrade’ is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas, with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold-up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Final Rating: 8/10.