Upgrade is a high concept, low budget techno thriller written and directed by Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell, who is probably best known for his writing credits on the Saw and Insidious franchises. After making his directorial debut with the solid supernatural sequel Insidious: Chapter 3, Whannel is now tackling an original script that vibes like a William Gibson-penned ‘80s action film. The film stars Logan Marshall-Green, doing his best Tom Hardy impersonation as noted technophone Grey Trace who, during the course of a violent robbery that takes the life of his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is rendered a quadriplegic. When the police fail to track down the cybernetically enhanced criminals responsible, an acquaintance conveniently offers the desperate man another chance at life and vengeance in the form of an experimental treatment called STEM. What he doesn’t know is that the chip that would be embedded in his spinal column and once again give him control of his body comes paired with an AI that is like a homicidal Amazon Alexa, which develops a shocking blood lust as they track down those responsible for Asha’s death. STEM turns Grey into an unstoppable killing machine with enhanced fighting capabilities and an autopilot berserker mode that triggers the film’s mind-melting, hyperkinetic fight sequences.
The film’s plot plays out in a fairly formulaic fashion as Grey works his way up the henchman food chain dispatching those involved with the Asha’s murder in a spectacularly grisly fashion. Of all things to complain about on this film the film’s gore effects and over the top fights definitely not one of them. This road to revenge, of course leads him to finally discover who REALLY was behind the attack, which comes paired with a twist that lays out a shockingly grim outlook for our future. Upgrade is a little too rough around the edges with its clunky dialog and one-dimensional characters, especially given Whannell’s writing resume. The actors spend much of the film stumbling through the technobabble in an attempt to breathe life into these characters as the machinations of the plot lurch along. Being a fan of Whannell’s output thus far and this film’s concept being right in my wheelhouse with its story that’s Robocop by way of David Cronenberg, I couldn’t help but leave the theater feeling a bit disappointed. Upgrade never really takes hold of its audience as it fails to really engage on an emotional or visceral level, as it attempts to channel some of the best of 80s action cinema. It’s not a total loss however, as the film’s action and gore set pieces alone are worth checking this out if you catch this streaming after your latest Black Mirror binge. — DAN TABOR