Upgrade (2018) / Fair use doctrine.

Movie Review: UPGRADE (2018)

Even if you’re not familiar with the name (and as a horror fan, you should be), there’s a reason why LEIGH WHANNELL is on everyone’s radar at the moment. As a director/producer/writer/actor, together with frequent producing partner JAMES WAN (who I know you’ve heard of), Whannell’s had a hand in the creation of some of the most successful horror efforts from the last two decades, including the franchises for SAW, INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING and ANNABELLE, be it in front of or behind the camera. (And in some cases, it’s been both.) So it should come as no surprise whatsoever, that this talented man’s ever-creative brain spat out the concept for the remarkable sci-fi/action/horror thriller, UPGRADE.

Grey Trace (potential Tom Hardy stand-in LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN from PROMETHEUS, SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING and DEVIL) isn’t just your everyday, garden-variety Luddite in the not-all-that-distant future. He’s not seeking to ‘destroy the system’ that controls this world, but he sure as hell isn’t going to be a part of it. He listens to gut-bucket blues while he works on restoring ‘analog’-based cars, for very rich people who collect them. But he doesn’t love his cars or his music half as much as his beautiful wife, Asha, (MELANIE VALLEJO), and no, he doesn’t mind at all that she’s the “pants-wearing breadwinner” of the family.  Alas, the ‘happy-life’ set up must end, as they all must for a movie like this to work, and thanks to a malfunction in the cab that’s supposed to be bringing them home, the lovebirds instead end up in a really bad part of Grey’s old ‘hood, where a band of thugs decides to kill Asha, and leave Grey permanently paralyzed instead of dead.

Wouldn’t you know it, though: there’s an app for that. One of the rich people he sold a refurbished car to is a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk-type technological wunderkind named Eron Keen (HARRISON GILBERTSON). Yes, his appearance is foreshadowing that’s about as subtle as a Keith Moon drum solo, and yes, he does turn up again after Grey’s ordeal, to give him a way to walk again, but more than that, a means by which avenging his crippling and his wife’s murder will be a breeze.

That way is a computer chip called ‘STEM,’ but calling it a “computer chip” is like calling Mount Kilimanjaro a molehill. STEM not only helps operate Grey’s damaged central nervous system and thereby his arms, legs and the rest of his body, but it can help him do some pretty incredible things…like, kick the living shit out of bad guys. And then we and Grey soon realize…he’s not the only ‘modified human’ running around out there. And when he’s not looking for them, they are most certainly out to get him!
However, as wondrous technological developments always do in movies like this, STEM is not without its own set of problematic glitches and side effects, and to say anything more than that would reveal some devastating Act Three spoilers, including the most important twist of all in the story, which isn’t ‘early M. Night Shyamalan’-badass, but pretty close.

I don’t know how much training Marshall-Green had in physical conditioning and movement before shooting, but however long and/or grueling it was, the end results were more than worth it.  His performance is incredible, especially the way he defines Grey’s bodily control under STEM’S influence as totally and spell bindingly different than it is under his own steam.  And all without the aid of CG or other special visual effects, save for some dazzling angles that Whannell employs, thanks to the amazing camera work of DP STEFAN DUSCIO, and also in no small part to the stunt team, led by coordinator CHRIS ANDERSON, with stunning fight choreography by CHRIS WEIR.

BENEDICT HARDIE (HACKSAW RIDGE, NEKROTRONIC) makes a great anti-heroic counterpart for Grey as Fisk, the ‘bad guy’ seemingly responsible for everything that happens, though you discover in pretty short order, that his motivations are far beyond those of the kind of average thug-villain who’d usually be playing this role.  I also love the obvious nod to the late Douglas Rain’s voice performance as “HAL 2000” in Kubrick’s “2001”. If there’s any justice in this world, the smooth, even and undeniably creepy tones of SIMON MAIDEN’S “STEM” voice will become just as iconic.

There’s no way to herald anyone on this picture without including the eye-popping work by the makeup FX team here.  The impressive key sequences would have come across so much better if they hadn’t already been ‘spoiled’ in the “Red Band” version of the trailer.  Even having said that, they’re still amazing as hell when you see them in context.

There aren’t a whole lot of complaints I have about this one, but there is one aspect that bears mentioning: I know the previews sell this as a testosterone-fueled, dystopian thrill ride for the ‘dudes’, and yeah, I’ll admit that was part of the allure for me. But that also means the female characters get short shrift…again. The death of Grey’s wife, Asha, pretty much propels the entire plot into motion, although Vallejo gets to do little more than look pretty…even when her character is dying.

I can understand the casting of BETTY GABRIEL as Det. Cortez, the cop who begins to realize there’s more to her ‘crippled’ suspect than meets the eye.  Between her spellbinding performance in Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, plus her growing resume of appearances in other genre movies like UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB and THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, she’s quickly becoming the next “IT-Girl” for horror and sci-fi fans. But I really wished they’d given her more to do because hers is the kind of character you want to know more about. The antagonistic-yet-empathetic relationship between her and Grey could have been developed much more extensively than it was.

The one place where the minimal development of female characters works comes about, when at a crucial moment in the story, Grey hooks up with a mysterious uber-hacker named “Jamie” (KAI BRADLEY). In their scene together, which probably is all of about three minutes in length, we are completely captivated by her, not just because of the interesting aura she projects, thanks to Bradley’s performance, but because of several things she says to Grey and about him, throwing hints out there about what’s going on – there’s more to this story than we think there is, Jamie warns us. And that has me looking forward to a sequel, which I hope Whannell intended. Which I also hope includes Jamie’s return.

I’m glad that my concerns about Whannell were completely groundless. Though I’ve enjoyed his work as both an actor and a filmmaker, I was wondering if he considered his niche to be splitting time between the writer’s room, producer’s desk, and acting. UPGRADE is only his second film where he took over the director’s chair (his first time was in 2015 with INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3), but if UPGRADE is any indication of where he’s going with his creative knack, I’m looking forward to the UPGRADE sequel…or wherever he decides to go next. Count me in! And please accept four out of five bone-crushing stars of gratitude!


Posted by Samuel Glass

We want to hear your thoughts!