Upgrade ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


Funny thing: A year or so ago, I stopped watching this exactly 30 minutes in, and it turns out that STEM speaks for the first time (audibly to us, anyway) at 30:03. Not that hearing its overly Douglas Rain-ish voice would necessarily have made a huge difference—I bailed originally because nothing about the film apart from its premise struck me as very accomplished, and so another plot twist, however intriguing, would only have seemed like something else bound to be executed with mid-budget mediocrity. Now, having watched the whole thing, I have a pretty good sense of how comparatively chintzy The Invisible Man would have seemed without an actor of Elisabeth Moss' caliber in the lead. (Switch the titles of Whannell's films and both still work!) Marshall-Green is by no means without talent, but he still comes across as an off-brand version of everyone from Tom Hardy to Chris Pratt, because the role is so thinly conceived and written. This is a fairly clever story, in retrospect—while I correctly guessed early on that Fake Elon Musk (played by an off-brand Dane DeHaan, who's himself sort of an off-brand Michael Pitt, who I don't much like to begin with) had deliberately targeted our hero, engineering his spinal-cord injury, I never suspected the ultimate reason—but it's frequently uninspired from moment to moment, resembling blah TV. There's little of the formal ingenuity that Whannell demonstrates in The Invisible Man, and of course Upgrade also lacks that film's constant potential threat (so far as we know, until the end), which generates tension from scenes that might otherwise be clunky or mundane.

Yet I still had a reasonably good time once STEM finally wakes up—half an hour plus three seconds in—and starts taking control of both Grey's body and the narrative. Just now googled "upgrade fight choreographer" and discovered that it's one Chris Anderson, who's been working in stunts since the original Mad Max; he, Whannell, and Marshall-Green do a stunning job throughout of creating the impression that Grey's movements are independent of his consciousness, while at the same time fashioning routines that resemble first-rate Hong Kong action. I'd turned the film off the first time assuming it to be an updated Six Million Dollar Man—we even get Grey running faster and faster on a treadmill post-implant, as in that show's opening-credits sequence—but it's actually more of an updated Wonder Man (the Danny Kaye movie about a nebbish possessed by the ghost of his brash twin), played for sci-fi horror rather than for comedy. Logic is clearly not Whannell's friend, but if I'm gonna accept Marty McFly's image slowly vanishing from his family photo as the Enchantment Under the Sea dance nears, I guess I also have to accept Grey stumbling around as STEM operates at 70% capacity while being remotely shut down in that coding-for-dummies way (COMMENCE FINAL SHUTDOWN PROCEDURE) that's somehow still ubiquitous in Hollywood. (STEM's diabolical plan also seems to involve a lot of unnecessary steps. If the goal is to "break" Grey's mind, using his limbs to slaughter random innocents would surely achieve that much more quickly than does having him laboriously track down his wife's killers. That objection falls squarely under "there'd be no movie," though.) Not too bad as dumb fun goes.