Upgrade: 21st Century Digital Boy, by David Bax
Leigh Whannell, the writer/producer behind the Saw and Insidious franchises, is decidedly known for horror movies. He remained in that lane for his directorial debut, 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3,but for his follow-up, he’s gone in a new direction. Upgrade doesn’t contain anything you’d call a scare, even though it’s plenty gory and there’s a body horror element to its depictions of modified flesh and a human form not under its own control. Instead, Whannell has made a lean, brutal science fiction action flick (with a side of dark comedy) whose thrills are no less thrilling for how cheap they come.
Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace (that’s not the funny part), a man in the future who lives in the past. In a fully automated world where a “phone” is a tiny earpiece and your car has a steering wheel you’re not supposed to touch, Grey prefers to spend his time in the garage, fixing up old junkers with his hands and some twentieth century tools. But when a high-tech mugging leaves his wife dead and him paralyzed, he takes multi-billionaire whiz kid Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) up on the offer of becoming a test subject for a revolutionary new implant that will let him walk again. What Grey ends up with is an enhancement that makes him practically superhuman while surrendering some of his autonomy, which he considers a fair bargain that results in his being able to track down and exact bloody revenge on his wife’s killers.
Upgrade is produced and released by BH Tilt, the micro-imprint of the already slim and thrifty Blumhouse Productions. The economical execution of a high-concept premise like this one is tailor-made for the brand. You’ll be amazed at the quality of the visual effects and production design on what couldn’t have been too large a budget. You may also be impressed by the weirdest production company bumper I’ve ever seen (or rather, heard), a voice reading the requisite information accompanied only by a 3D-animated measurement of sound waves.
But it’s the look, not the sound, of Upgrade that is the most striking. From futuristic cityscapes with rooftop waterfalls to automobiles fully enclosed in something like metallic snakeskin, the world here is fully realized. It helps that Whannell understands the simple power of editing. Neither a shot of the beach nor the following shot of a narrow, high-walled staircase are going to break the bank, yet what their juxtaposition suggests about Eron’s underground lair is worth millions in production design.
Whannell is not here to revolutionize any genres, though. He’s just giving them the same tune-up and new paint job (or, hey, an upgrade!) as Grey’s muscle cars. He even finds a novel approach to the hoary old “Enhance” method of gleaning information from grainy security footage. It’s too bad, then, that he couldn’t find a way around the too-familiar fridging that kicks off the plot.
Those genre facelifts aren’t really what you go to see Upgrade for, anyway. This is, as mentioned before, primarily an action movie, and a damned good one. The scenes of hand to hand combat, choreographed by Chris Weir, are jacked up, swift and smooth but never incoherent. Whannell saves his niftiest trick for these fight scenes, too, occasionally locking the camera onto Grey so that the action moves around his stable form, reflecting the way he is locked in his own mind while his implant takes over. With fun ideas like that, Upgrade may not stick to your ribs like classic action movies but it’s scarily effective in the moment.