Upgrade is a bit of an odd duck. It’s not being particularly heavily promoted, its star (Logan Marshall-Green) is at best known as a side-player in films like Prometheus and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and on the surface, its story of a man granted sort-of-superpowers via technological mumbo-jumbo doesn’t sound particularly innovative. In some ways, its twists are terribly predictable, with clues telegraphed fairly early on.
And yet, Upgrade quickly sets about overcoming those shallow assumptions, and with an almost blistering pace, becomes a fascinating and exhilarating examination of murder, revenge, technology and futurism, and even delves rather compassionately and honestly into what it’s like to live with a significant physical disability. That it blends all of those into a compelling and cohesive narrative is all the more remarkable. And while it starts off using a rather unfortunate trope — the murder of the protagonist’s wife — it quickly becomes an engrossing, enjoyable, and intelligent bit of sci-fi.
Writer and director Leigh Whannell only has one other directorial credit — Insidious: Chapter 3 — but his writing credits span some significant horror contributions, including the other Insidious films, the first three Saw films, and the bonkers horror-comedy Cooties. It’s an oddball resume, but one can see bits of each of them influencing some of the stylistic choices of Upgrade. Yet, it’s very much its own creature. The film opens in an indeterminate year in the future, in an unnamed city, where police drones fly through the air and self-driving cars are the norm. Technological body modification isn’t unusual, and everyone has an imprinted ID chip that allows them to be traced and tracked by the government. The outlier to this is protagonist Grey Trace, a Luddite auto mechanic who specializes in classic cars and who is genially at odds with his wife Asha’s (Melanie Vallejo) dedication to new tech. After delivering a car to an eccentric techno-entrepreneur, Asha and Grey are waylaid by masked goons who murder Asha and leave Grey paralyzed.
The film picks up three months later, showing Grey struggling despairingly to endure life alone and as a quadriplegic until he’s eventually given a second chance at walking again, albeit under shady circumstances. This newfound ability comes with a price — a voice in his head and an unpredictable lethality — that both helps him in finding his wife’s killers but also drives him deeper and deeper underground, away from a normal life and toward something more sinister. What follows is a breakneck and occasionally madcap hunt where Grey finds himself doing terrible things in the name of justice and vengeance, while also dealing with a dogged homicide investigator (Betty Gabriel, the “no no no no” maid from Get Out) and encounters with increasingly dangerous, technologically enhanced killers.
What sets Upgrade apart is how impressively well-realized its world is. By removing a date and any geographical context, it allows Whannell to freely construct his own future that’s clearly far ahead of ours, but still with enough familiar touches to make it recognizable. It’s not a drab, dystopian future, but instead a thriving urban environment, replete with all the good and bad parts. It has glossy high rises and homeless camps, futuristic vehicles and dumpy jalopies, house AI’s that make you protein shakes and grimy, bucket-of-blood watering holes. It’s a surprisingly complete world, and it establishes itself with a minimum of exposition, showing rather than telling, letting you discover the world with each new step in Grey’s journey.
All of this nifty worldbuilding is aided by some exceptional action sequences, wherein Grey uncovers new possibilities with his rejuvenated body. Yet he’s often not 100 percent in control of it, resulting in some shockingly — and sometimes even hilariously — gory ends to his foes as he inadvertently learns its limits (or lack thereof). The fights are creatively shot, with swooping camera angles that move fluidly around Grey as he gets into them, giving the viewer the same sense of disorientation that he must be feeling. It’s fun, sometimes dizzying stuff that lends itself well to the type of persona that Grey is evolving into. Logan Marshall-Green does a fantastic job of a man with a burning sense of vengeance, yet also terrified and confused about what he’s becoming and what he’s capable of, and it all blends together nicely to create a likable character who’s sympathetic despite his increased propensity for bloody mayhem.
Upgrade is unquestionably one of the year’s more pleasant surprises. I didn’t know much going in, and it didn’t take long for it to turn into something unique and often even quite beautiful. It’s a fun, exciting, and occasionally thought-provoking film that at a brisk 95 minutes never overstays its welcome. Assuming you can handle some of its rather shocking, well-executed moments of gore, it becomes a remarkably entertaining bit of science-fiction storytelling.