Upgrade Movie Review

Written by Ren Zelen

Released by Universal Pictures UK

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell
2018, 100 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Frightfest Special Preview on 25th August 2018

Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace
Richard Anastasios as Wan
Rosco Campbell as VR guy
Richard Cawthorne as Serk
Linda Cropper as Pamela

upgrade poster


While known predominantly for horror movies, Blumhouse is extending its reach into other genres with its BH Tilt sub-label. In his new feature Upgrade, Blumhouse regular Leigh Whannell (writer/co-creator of Saw and Insidious) has created a violent science-fiction-revenge-melodrama.

Upgrade follows old-school everyman, mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, The Invitation) who works with his hands restoring old automobiles. Outside the haven of his garage workshop is a world dominated by A.I. and technology. He lives with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in a 'smart home' in which voice-activated gadgets cater to their every need. Asha works at a computer/A.I. company and arrives home every night in a self-driving car.

After having delivered one of his vintage automobiles to wealthy recluse Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) – who also happens to be the whizz-kid head of the most successful computer/A.I. company out there, Grey and Asha are due to be driven back home again in her self-driving car.

upgrade 01 upgrade 02b

Having their hands free they take the opportunity to indulge in some amorous activity on the back seat, so it takes them a while to notice that something has gone wrong – the car has been hacked and has driven them into a nasty part of town where it proceeds to crash itself.

Violent thugs headed by cold-eyed killer Fisk (Benedict Hardie), drag Grey and Asha from the upturned car. He takes pleasure in needlessly killing her, and shooting Grey in the neck. Grey is forced to watch his wife die as he finds he cannot move to help her - the injury has left him paralysed from the neck down.

In hospital again after a failed suicide attempt, Grey is surprised to receive a visit from Eron, his previous client, the young, reclusive tech genius. Eron is there to offer him the technology which would return the use of his limbs. This however, would involve the implantation of a revolutionary microchip called 'STEM' right into Grey’s brainstem to seal the gap between the severed sides of his spinal cord. STEM will once again enable Grey to take control of all of his motor functions and bodily activities. But, the operation is highly confidential - in the outside world, Grey would have to continue to pretend to be quadriplegic and wheelchair-bound.

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STEM does indeed seem to be a miracle cure, but as it becomes more integrated into Grey's bodily systems, it surprises its host by its many other benefits, and soon develops a voice of its own. Two consciousness then begin to inhabit the same body.

Grey realises the potential of using STEM to help solve his wife's murder and to seek vengeance for her death. He actively encourages STEM to do whatever it needs to in order to, first, protect their shared body, and secondly, to use whatever methods necessary to get at the truth. Of course, ultimately the 'truth' that Grey discovers is not the one that he expects, and STEM may not be as benevolent and beneficial an 'upgrade' as he'd been promised.

Leigh Whannell's script for Upgrade had been in limbo since 2010 (and at one point was apparently announced as a follow-up to the Spierig brothers' excellent sci-fi Predestination). Whannell eventually took it in hand himself and has been able to fashion his film into a narrative concerning the relationship between humans and technology, coupled with a vengeance-fuelled detective story. It features A.I. and nanotechnology – good and bad – chase sequences, Cronenberg-body-horror, inventive weapons and hand-to-hand combat scenes reminiscent of The Matrix.

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There is a kind of moral ambiguity in Upgrade, as there is in other films by Whannell (we remember that Saw implied that the victims may be seen as more evil than their abductor, who was using his sadistic traps as instruments of punishment and penance). Here, the ambiguity centres on the argument surrounding the notion of complicity - when Grey finds himself in dangerous situations, he hands over control of his body to STEM, resulting in the film's most violent combat sequences. Although he has handed over control, does that make Grey any less guilty for the ensuing injury and death? It's an interesting, and timely, question, and one which the film poses without providing any definitive answer.

Logan Marshall-Green in the principal role does a good job of playing a desperate, broken man, and works well with Simon Maiden as the voice of STEM, who utilises a monotone which still seems able to convey subtle emotion (reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 computer). Their partnership is the source of many of the film’s grimly humorous moments, which sometimes give way to horror.

Don't expect Upgrade to be the kind of film that examines man's fraught relationship with technology in any detail – it never develops any of its more philosophical ideas. Instead, simply be prepared for an entertaining, action-revenge sci-fi flick, containing some crazy fight choreography and wry humour. It's best just to take the hands off the wheel, strap in, and enjoy the (pre-programmed) fun ride.


Movie: 4 Star Rating Cover

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Ren Zelen
Staff Reviewer
REN ZELEN is a writer, movie critic, reviewer, academic editor, pop-culture junkie and Sandra Bullock lookalike. Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘THE HATHOR DIARIES’ is available on Amazon in the UK and USA and worldwide.
Other articles by this writer



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