Upgrade ★★★½

Geoff T's Hoop-Tober 8.0 Challenge
Whannell Double Bill #1
Upgrade (2018)

I’d actually did this double feature last year’s Hoop-Tober, but I never got around to writing about them. Therefore, I’m doing it again.

Here’s one that peaked my interest a good bit last year. From Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell comes Upgrade, a pretty damn awesome sci-fi thriller that quickly became a modern cult classic and sleeper hit. Considering this was only Whannell’s second directional effort (after the third Insidious), he did a fine job here.

In a future where humans have become over-reliant on technology, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mechanic who seems to be living the good life with his wife Asha. That is until they make a wrong turn while driving home, in which Grey is paralysed and Asha is killed in a mugging-gone-wrong. When approached by tech innovator Eron Keen, he is implanted with a hyper-intelligent computer chip known as ‘STEM” that allows him to walk again. Unsatisfied with the police’s efforts to track down Asha’s killers, Grey (with the use of STEM attempts) to take the matters into his own hands, his tracks leading him to Fisk and his gang.

Okay so the narrative is hardly original, being an amalgamation of films like Death Wish, RoboCop and John Wick. It’s Whannell’s slick execution of the material that makes it stand out. For such a limited budget, I’m amazed by how great the production design is in this. It features a neat cyberpunk-inspired aesthetic with sleek, ultramodern set-designs and futuristic technology (touch screens, drones, self-driving cars a.eg), as well as the city of Melbourne credibly filling in for the US. The often neon-drenched cinematography gives the production a really polished look, and the score by Jed Palmer is ambient bliss.

Now I know it’s easy to joke about Logan Marshall-Green literally looking like a doppelgänger of Tom Hardy, but doing so overrides how good Green’s performance is here. His portrayal of Trace (love that name btw) is believable and sympathetic, and there's humour derived from how flabbergasted he is when STEM starts to reveal it’s true power (like talking to him through his ear and controlling his body while fighting). The other characters aren't so memorable, but I liked the intriguing nature of Eron, and thought Fisk was a decent enough villain who sadly suffers from limited screen-time.

The action despite its limited quantities, is what heavily sells this as well. Whannell often shoots it in an interesting fashion, with inventive camerawork that accompanies fight scenes, along with some memorably graphic death scenes that rival the goriest of horror flicks (that face-split one was just fucking nasty!). We’ve also got dudes shooting out of their hands, and a beautifully-lit car chase scene on a freeway. There’s quite a large body-horror element going on with this too, as Trace increasingly begins to become overwhelmed by STEM’s control of his body.

In essence, this is a modern B-movie done right. Nicely shot, good performances, a lot of style and some rather gruesome violence accompanying it. I have somewhat mixed feelings on the twist that occurs (and the conclusion) and the story isn’t always the most engaging, but otherwise this one hidden gem of pulp-based sci-fi that I wouldn’t pass up.

Easily my favourite Blumhouse production. Would be cool to see Whannell do a follow-up at some point.


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