Upgrade is a simple revenge story. Mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are attacked by a group of thugs. Asha is killed and Grey is left paralyzed from the neck down. Naturally, Grey does whatever he can to get revenge on the criminals who murdered his wife. It’s a standard Death Wish setup but Upgrade throws a very interesting twist into the formula.
Grey is approached by eccentric tech genius Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) who wants to test a prototype implant called STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden). This artificial intelligence will not only give back Grey his mobility, but it will also give him enhanced reflexes and some other useful abilities. It’s this sci-fi slant that gives Upgrade its unique take on the revenge film.
It’s also just damn cool.
Style Goes a Long Way
With so much of action cinema falling victim to grounded realism, it’s great to see a film like Upgrade come out. Much like John Wick, Upgrade paints its not-too-distant-future world with tons of colorful lighting. Mixing this decision with a grimy aesthetic and tone creates a wonderful mashup that works like gangbusters. Plus, Upgrade‘s actual world isn’t so far-fetched with its sci-fi ideas. For example, cities still look the same but there are now police drones that keep a constant watch on citizens.
Writer/director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) doesn’t just drench Upgrade in tons of colors and leave it at that. His command of the camera is excellent, especially when it comes to staging the various action scenes in the film. Through a number of creative techniques, Whannell gives each fight its own sense of energy. Wild camera moves and tight editing ensure that every piece of action is propulsive and impacting.
On top of that, the violence in Upgrade is peppered with incredibly over-the-top moments. Heads explode and get torn in half thanks to some wonderful practical effects. Much like RoboCop, the violent moments are played for a variety of emotional beats. Sometimes, they are triumphant or even outrageous. Other times, they are shocking, brutal, or even horrifying. It’s a deft handling of tone that keeps the movie from ever feeling mean-spirited just for the sake of it.
Strong Story, Stronger Lead
Like the opening paragraph said, Upgrade is the kind of basic revenge formula that we’ve seen played out for decades on film. Even though it’s familiar, the addition of artificial intelligence STEM turns the film into something weirder. The sci-fi musings of Upgrade explore the ideas of integrating artificial intelligence and technological body modification into our daily lives. And the story is enjoyably devilish when it comes to how STEM operates as a character. The relationship between STEM and Grey is always evolving and that keeps the plot moving along while also providing some surprises along the way.
And it’d be remiss not to praise Logan Marshall-Green as Grey. He’s incredibly earnest as a guy who somewhat distrusts modern technology but is made to deal with it in order to enact his vengeance. Marshall-Green finds the humor in a lot of scenes without going too goofball with it. His performance is easily one of the highlights of the film.
Is Upgrade Good?
Upgrade is the grungy, gonzo, and genuinely great type of sci-fi that we need to see more often. It has a vivid sense of style and tone, but it also balances that with an engaging story, striking action, and a commanding lead actor. If you’re a fan of ’80s hardcore sci-fi action, Upgrade is going to make you very happy.