Upgrade shows just how much butt a film can kick on no budget

By Leigh Monson

   Upgrade kind of came out of nowhere, right?
   Not that its writer-director, Leigh Whannell, was an unknown prior to this, most notable for writing the first three Saw films and the entire Insidious franchise, but Whannell has never shown himself to be an especially engaging director, having only previously tried his hand at the relatively workmanlike Insidious Chapter 3. But Upgrade is something entirely different from his usual horror outings, demonstrating a dynamism in Whannell's style that makes the most out of this film's meager budget, rumored to be no more than $5 million.
   In the near future, technology has progressed to the point where nearly everything is computerized and automated, from the cars to the kitchen appliances to the very people themselves. Grey (Logan Marshall-Greene) is something of a luddite, preferring to work on the analogue pleasures of restoring cars while his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works hard in the prosthetics industry. However, Grey's life changes irreparably when a car highjacking leaves Asha dead and Grey paralyzed from the neck down.
   When a former client, the billionaire Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), offers Grey a new lease on life, Grey accepts an implant known as STEM into his spinal column, an augmentation that allows Grey to reclaim his mobility. However, when STEM starts talking in Grey's head, the pair take on the task of tracking down and killing the people who killed Asha, with a suspicious detective (Betty Gabriel) on their tail as STEM gradually reveals itself to have an agenda of its own.
   Whannell does a lot to make his concept of the future stand out, which is particularly fascinating considering how much of the film takes place in indoor environments and with modest set dressing to convey time and place. The living spaces of the well-off inhabitants of this world are sparse but efficient, brightly illuminated to showcase the automated normalcy of everyday life, while the dingy, grungy spaces of the impoverished are considerably less inviting, illuminated by neon lights and supplemented by technologies that don't so much make life easier to live as they do make it easier to cope with. Objectively, there's very little put on screen to communicate just what state the future finds itself in, but Whannell does the most with it, creating a convincing world that feels lived-in and real.
   But the big reason to see Upgrade is the way Whannell films his action scenes. STEM has the ability to take control of Grey's body in order to exercise self-defense, and the fight choreography is quite frankly amazing to watch unfold. The camera always moves with Grey, highlighting the mechanical efficiency of his movements, and seeing it happen the first time is something akin to what watching bullet time in The Matrix was in 1999.
   It's an effect that is sure to prompt a string of imitators, but those imitations likely won't live up to the amazing physical performance from Logan Marshall-Green. He makes the extreme precision of his movements look like child's play, especially when his emotional reactions often don't match with the brutality of his attacks. It's a performance perfectly suited to the surreal joy of watching Grey and STEM go on their bloody revenge rampage, one where the two are often at odds with one another and Marshall-Green has to convey that conflict all by himself.
   This isn't exactly revolutionary filmmaking, Matrix comparison notwithstanding, but it is a brutal and endlessly entertaining action film that promises to open a lot of doors for everyone involved. Upgrade is dark, vicious, and oddly funny at times, and the resulting mixture is supremely entertaining, devoid of pretense for anything other than delivering a visceral action experience. You won't want to miss this one.

4/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.