Violent action films tend to require the viewer to switch off their brain. Upgrade is a welcome exception.
At first glance, Upgrade may seem like just another excuse for violence on the big screen. A paralyzed man (Grey Trace) receives a magical microchip that is able to not only restore the feeling in his fingers and toes, but also move his body with lightning precision. The computer does the processing for him, allowing super-human reaction times and formidable fighting skills. Of course he gets to put those new abilities to good use because he’s out for revenge. His paralysis came at the hands of a group of nefarious men who also killed his wife. Grey Trace is like John Wick, except he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. The fancy computer chip does.
If this was your only perspective of Upgrade, it may seem like yet another science-fiction leaning action film for audiences who are entertained by extreme violence. Like Lucy or Dredd, the allure is depicting the intemperate aftermath which they can’t show you in those PG-13-rated superhero films playing in the next theater. The extreme depictions naturally induce a narrower appeal, which in turn, requires a tighter budget. But this is never really an impediment for creative filmmakers who are trying to exploit splattered guts for glory. B-movies have been making us squirm in our seats since their inception. It’s not about simply having violence anyway, it’s how you use it.
Upgrade uses violence much in the same way that Robocop or The Terminator used their violence in the 1980’s. It’s a cautionary tale, one that has a crucial sprocket fueled by hard science fiction, and yet altogether feels real enough to actually happen. The violence has something to do with that. By making us cringe, the film is able to connect in a more direct way than even the most mind-opening prophetic vision of our future. Audiences are people, and each of us is familiar with pain. In Robocop it is important to watch Alex Murphy get brutally gunned down by a group of gangsters because it creates a sympathy with the character and helps to validate the extreme measures that are undertaken later on. In Upgrade, Grey Trace is undeservedly reduced to a bloody cripple so that the film has the opportunity to inflict gruesome pain in reciprocation.
However, Upgrade’s appeal as an entertaining film isn’t entirely reliant on gut-displacing action sequences for cheap thrills (although it does deliver on that front). Just as it would be a mistake to write off Robocop or The Terminator as fruitless endeavors because of their disposition towards bodily dismemberment, Upgrade is more than what is advertised in the trailer. The violence is simply a forceful way to deliver a message. Like both of those aforementioned science fiction staples, Upgrade offers thought-provoking commentary on the relationship between man and machine. Most importantly, what we see on screen is a microcosm of a larger problem plaguing the film’s world as a whole. There is concern regarding our current trend of technological development, and Upgrade gives us one horrific end game possibility.
What initially starts as a simple revenge story turns into something much more menacing and intricate. In many ways, this bold third-act decision making comes courtesy of director/writer Leigh Whannell’s experience writing intense horror films, such as the Saw franchise. In Upgrade, Whannell isn’t afraid to keep pushing. That’s what is required to keep audiences on the edge of their seats in horror films, and it transfers well to science fiction. What also transfers well to the realm of science fiction is Whannell’s grasp of body horror. It’s yet another tool that makes the possibilities of technological development alarming rather than alluring. Because of these attributes, the plot always seems to be evolving. Just when you think it has found a comfortable resting place, it brings in a new twist or complication.
As director, Whannell’s style matches the film’s energy and boundary-pushing attitude. From the moment the film opens with an atypical credits sequence, you understand that the filmmakers are not exactly playing it safe. The film’s action and insane antics are what makes it entertaining on a basic level, and the direction has the same sort of strategy. There’s a moment in which the camera actually flips over twice in a creative transition. A few others where a bodycam makes the audience feel like they are part of Grey Trace as much as the chip that he had implanted.
Visually, the film is very dark. It spends its time in low-lit areas and the sets are either dingy or cave-like, even in areas that are supposed to be comforting like a home, or safe like a police station. In many ways, the darkness is fitting due to the disturbing subject matter at hand, but it also feels like it is being used to purposefully obscure the film’s low budget. Indeed, Upgrade’s production as a whole leaves a bit to be desired in that department. While the action is well made, and the special effects are suitable, the film still feels somewhat restrained and clunky because of the limitations it is dealing with. This criticism also extends to the script, which has a lot of ground to cover in a somewhat short 95 minute runtime. As a result, the narration takes a few shortcuts along the way and the plot moves forward at a rate that is suspiciously convenient.
On screen, Logan Marshall-Green plays Trace. He brings a sense of shock and horror to the role that matches the audience's own perspective of what is taking place. In this way, the audience has someone to connect with as the chaos ensues. In many ways, Trace is an innocent victim of the entire escapade, but not entirely blameless. After the accident, he is crippled and depressed because he is unable to do anything for himself. When he first experiences the abilities of the chip, he is excited. But gradually that excitement turns to terror. As he gives the chip control in order to take out the bad guys, Trace is once again the helpless passenger as he has to witness the atrocities that his own body is commiting.
Upgrade is not exactly heady science fiction, built only to push boundaries and provoke new ideas. Neither does it solely rely on outrageous violence for excitement. Instead, it is somewhere in the middle. This exhibition of both brains and braun isn’t something you haven’t seen before, but it has an attitude all its own. The director’s experience in provocative horror translates well to science fiction, and the creativity utilized to overcome the film’s low budget doesn’t go unrecognized. Actually, the film’s clunkiness actually becomes part of its charm, delivering a pseudo-nostalgia nod to the gritty 80’s sci fi B-movies it echoes in terms of plot and style. Upgrade is indeed an improvement over your typical summer movie fare, that is, if you can stomach it.