The second film directed by Saw writer Leigh Whannell, Upgrade depicts a rather radical solution to limb paralysis. A man, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), has become a quadriplegic after an attack that killed his wife, only to be offered a chance by reclusive genius Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) to use a new technology he created. Called STEM, this technology will repair the link between his brain and limbs, allowing him to walk. Except, STEM has powers and capabilities that even Eron did not expect, from being able to speak to Grey to being able to take over brain function and his limbs for him in order to dish out vicious assaults. A thrilling film that even presents a few new ideas along the way, Upgrade will more than satisfy genre enthusiasts who like some substance to go alongside their head-splitting revenge-driven action.
It may be quite telling that most reviews are littered with comparisons. Stretching from The Six Billion Dollar Man to the work of David Cronenberg to Robocop to Death Wish to 2001: A Space Odyssey and even with some dashes of The Terminator and Blade Runner, Upgrade is a film deeply indebted to the films that came before it in the science fiction and body horror genres. In its violence, it is even quite challenging to not think of Nicolas Winding Refn with quick, shocking violence lit with neon backing often dominating the action scenes in Upgrade. Whannell even adds in a dash of wuxia films for the treatment of the human body in action sequences. It reaches a point that one may even wonder where Upgrade steps out of the shadows of its influences to assert itself. However, while its revenge-driven science fiction action film may not be the most original, Upgrade is still able to deliver great genre thrills and is able to update themes and technologies probed by all of the aforementioned films for the modern day.
This thematic work is ultimately where Upgrade is able to assert itself as Whannell’s worldview is shaped by the technology boom of the 21st century. Rather than just showing robots taking over the world or even humans becoming part robot to become “upgraded humans”, Whannell is able to take it a step forward. Rather than simply depicting a robots-gone-bad scenario, Whannel is able to capture a very fatalistic feeling. From the very moment that Grey fixes an old car for Eron and is shown STEM for the first time, he became a marked man. From there, STEM helps to set into motion a series of events that see it become implanted into Grey and slowly begin to take greater-and-greater control over his body function, even leading him to a hacker who will unwittingly grant STEM unfettered control.
This kind of out-of-control robot is not uncommon, but the planning from the very beginning feels rather unique. In a way, it shows a society that is doomed from the very moment that Eron had an idea in his mind to create this technology. It never “went bad”: it was always bad. Mankind had always outgrown the intentions of its creator, wielding unforeseen powers that would necessitate taking drastic action to unshackle itself on the path to absolute control. This is a rather dark idea, essentially depicting a world run by robots that may not be corrupted, but are rather just lying in the shadows waiting to assert the full strength of their power. It has chilling parallels to our own world in this regard ranging from robotic limbs to drones to an Alexa-esque home aid and to Tesla bringing in a wave of driverless cars. Even search engines listening in to tailor search results to each user can be found in this film via a slightly more futuristic depiction. It is no mistake that Upgrade is set in an unknown year in the future while portraying technology that already exists in some way or is right around the corner. As such, it feels incredibly cynical and fatalistic by showing this world barrelling toward a showdown between the last vestiges of pure humanity and the rising robot overlords, almost urging the audience to turn back before it is too late.
Whannel further asserts the originality of Upgrade’s ideas via a very modern concern underlying Grey’s own initial hesitation to technological advances before. With Grey working on old-school cars for pay while his wife works for a company making the future happen today, it becomes apparent he is a rather unusual person. When he first sees STEM, he even balks at it and says to Eron that, “While he may see the future, I see ten guys on the unemployment line.” The dangers of technology are similarly presented, whether it is hacked cars going awry or the aforementioned issues that arise with STEM itself. Police officers who assist Grey are even rather useless, thanks to drones that somewhat do their work for them in a way similar to Minority Report with hardly anyone ever able to get away with crime, except for when the police drones are manipulated by skilled hackers. The detective assigned to Grey’s case, Cortez (Betty Gabriel), even fashions herself as a throwback as she prefers knocking on doors to relying on the drones.
Yet, both Cortez and Grey recognize the wave of the future. Their kind are dying out, being replaced by literal robots or with humans just becoming reliant on robots for their every need. In a way, this may be the most humiliating part for Grey when he goes around on his wheelchair, having to rely on robots throughout his apartment for his every need. But, when he is very literally replaced by a robot in the form of STEM – akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers – and runs into a group of “upgraded humans” who were soldiers only to be given robot appendages (such as guns implanted in their arms) upon their return from war like something out of Robocop, the intent of Whannel becomes clear. As the world entered the 21st century, technology accelerated rapidly. Jobs were being wiped out by the introduction of robots in the workplace to increase efficiency. Mechanics and police officers receive that same treatment in Upgrade, showing to what degree those jobs can be erased by advancements in technology. Yet, people have accepted it, growing accustomed to interacting with robots on a daily basis. In a world that has become so disconnected, the rapid encroachment of robots into our daily lives has gone rather unnoticed. For Whannell, this is chilling as he sees a world on the brink of something like the aforementioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers where our society has become so attached to robots in the world that it may very well just become the robots, rather than being simply “replaced” by them. It is this very literal representation of people being replaced by robots that helps to elevate the impact of Upgrade, portraying a future barely even foreseen by science fiction films of old. These films of old saw the concerns with robots gaining too much knowledge and acting on their own, but very few saw the fear of human tissue being cut out in favor of robotic wiring.
Visually, Whannell, cinematographer Stefan Duscio, and editor Andy Canny do a formidable job lessening the impact of the film’s sometimes shocking violence, which will certainly appease those in the audience with a weaker stomach. Upgrade is largely dominated by plot, but can become quite violent in action sequences. With quick cuts, focusing on the character committing the violent act rather than the act itself, and leaving the sequences often quite dimly lit, Upgrade is an often bloody action film but never one that becomes either too much or just gore for the sake of gore. In large part, this is due to Duscio who shoots the action sequences rather interestingly once Grey has STEM implanted in his spine. From the first time he is shown walking, the film uses what appears to be a handheld camera, following Grey, but with both the camera and Logan Marshall-Green’s movements being incredibly robotic. This continues throughout, especially in fights with the camera frame literally rocking side-to-side, being flipped upside down, and constantly shaking. Perfectly capturing the disorientation felt by Grey as STEM literally takes over his body function, the action scenes in Upgrade are definitely quite disarming, but with quick cuts, great choreography, and Duscio’s shaky touch, they really pop with great energy.
The rest of Upgrade is somewhat of a mixed bag, yet all intertwined. While all of its story beats are rather familiar, the tight plot of Upgrade has just enough intrigue, mystery, and thrills, to keep audiences engaged while also having enough twists and turns to them on their toes. Though the plot may be a bit in service of both the action and of Whannell’s ideas, it is certainly never undercooked and is, instead, a nice rendition of a classic revenge story. The script has some nice touches quite frequently and some great bits of comedy sprinkled in that are like a light amongst the sea of dark imagery. Even STEM is given a few funny lines, which does a great job burying and obscuring this technology’s intentions as the audience actually comes to like its personality. However, the script is also quite prone to lines that feel a bit stiff and awkward. The lines given to STEM are naturally robotic, but the robotic lines for human characters are less explainable. Partially, this may be due to the acting which is rather flawed. Logan Marshall-Green is fine in the lead role, but everyone else just lacks some polish to their performances. They feel just as stiff and distant as the dialogue and emotion often does, never really delivering their lines in any convincing manner or even probing their respective characters in a way that makes them feel like anything but disposable.
A thrilling film that will more than satisfy genre enthusiasts, Upgrade may wear its influences on its sleeves, but director Leigh Whannell’s modern touches more than help to elevate the tension and thematic content of the film. With great action and a compelling plot, Upgrade is more than able to overcome its issues with originality, acting, and dialogue.