Chris Richmond’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a fairly entertaining movie.
It's also vastly overrated.
As 100 minute, low(ish)-budget sci-fi films go, you could do worse.
As movies with anything intelligent to say go, this doesn't qualify to begin with.
People oddly refer to this as a fun B-movie while also lauding its "deep" concepts, but the ideas here are thin retreads high-jacked from other, way-better movies:
Blade Runner, Ex Machina, The Matrix, Robocop, Minority Report, and even I, Robot have already done every single thing here better.
Even the silly, triple-twist ending is more or less a retread of Brazil's.
Before anyone comments "movies don't have to be original to be good," you're right. But they do have to at least know that and also know what they want to be.
Upgrade has no idea what it wants to be. For the first 20 minutes or so, it isn't anything at all but "setup." Its genre and tone are "exposition," and this lack of direction or substance is exacerbated by middling dialogue and bad acting.
Logan Marshall-Green's performance is up and down, but he's a lot better when he's either laying in bed motionless and sad or punching robotically than when he's delivering actual lines as a person with emotion.
Melanie Vellajo's performance is just bad. Full stop.
After the initial setup is out of the way, Upgrade purports to be a dark revenge flick but pretty quickly starts to veer into black comedy territory, before again switching lanes and going back to action thriller and ending as a meditative sci-fi piece.
Which is all just to say that the tone is all over the place and this hurts the film.
What hurts it more is Leigh Whannell's script. Though the premise is interesting, the actual mystery at hand is nothing more than a series of similar and pointless A-B-C fight scene excuses, with a "story" and "plot" that go nowhere in circles.
Characters are thin, motivations are thinner, plot holes abound, and themes about the relationship between humans and technology are wasted.
Even this film's strengths have some problems.
Visually, we get lots of colored lighting and quality compositions, with ample movement. Though rarely outright impressive, it's consistently decent to good.
But knowing the rule of thirds and how not to fuck up lighting doesn't mean you know how to speak the visual language of film.
In Upgrade's opening, a long tracking shot lets us soak in Grey's old-soul character by showcasing his garage and its contents. This is great. We're showing, not telling.
But as the shot slowly and continuously makes it way over to Grey, we get three or four cuts in a row and break the 30 degree rule just to show him hurting his finger and sucking the blood.
They end up trying to parallel this in a metaphorically symmetrical way near the end, but I didn't even think about it initially because the two shots have no spatial relationship whatever.
There's just no actual reason to cut to two similarly wide shots and an intermittent closeup of the finger. All it does is ruin the cohesion of the scene, detract from our focus on Grey as a character, and undermine the attempted parallel.
This is one example of a continuous trend within Upgrade's runtime of being more concerned with Steadicam shots and parallel/parallax motion during the admittedly good fight choreography than with depth or meaning.
And that would be fine if this was just a fun, half-comedy B-movie from the get-go. But it wants to have its cake and eat it too, switching from silly to serious on a whim and without the requisite substance in the script to really even be able to pass as a serious success.
Meanwhile, though the twist(s) and general plot are nowhere near as nonsensical or frustrating as Whannell's previous work on movies such as Saw II (Review) or the even shittier Dead Silence (Review), they're still half-baked at best and totally impossible at worst.
Too bad our black lady cop character couldn't have been as sharp, dedicated, and corner-cutting with respect to the original investigation as she was when investigating a quadriplegic widower, huh? Suddenly it's easy to throw out the rules and get the job done.
Do we even need her here? Hell, do we even need Eron Keen either as anything but a red herring and trope-box to check?
This still has its moments, albeit most of them related to fists and gore, that ostensibly put smiles on audience faces, but Upgrade is banking on people being entertained enough by the rapid violence to ignore its useless story and brainless "questioning." I don't think there's quite enough empty-headed fun here to mitigate those shortcomings.