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 combines 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 its 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 is by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio as after obtaining STEM, the camera itself visually mirrors 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, that is, with tracks like We Can’t Let Them Win and Control. 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 fight 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.
In summary, 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. Rating: 8/10.