Upgrade is a sci-fi action/revenge flick directed by longtime James Wan collaborator, Leigh Whannell. Whannell is the co-creator of successful horror movie franchises (alongside with Wan) like Insidious and, of course, the Saw franchise. He made his feature-length debut with Insidious: Chapter 3 taking over the reins after James Wan left the franchise. Upgrade is really the first time he gets to escape the shadow of his friend and show off what he can do behind the camera. With a movie like Insidious: Chapter 3 he will be compared to what came before him but with Upgrade, there is no baggage of what came before him.
Upgrade is a B-movie done in the tradition of filmmakers like John Carpenter. The premise of a man seeking revenge for the death of his wife has been done to death (no pun intended). But, while it may feel stale in other movies here Whannell finds some new twists on the concept. During the attack on his wife, our main hero, Grey Trace (played effectively by Logan Marshall-Green) is paralyzed. He reluctantly accepts an offer from a high tech CEO to place a new piece of technology inside of him called Stem. Stem will allow him to walk again and uses it as a way to uncover who murdered his wife.
The twist on the revenge formula is the Sci-Fi setting and Stem itself. You might initially think the Sci-Fi setting is just window dressing to a fairly typical story, but Whannell wisely uses the advantages of science fiction to tell a better story. The revenge tale is greatly informed by this Sci-Fi world that Whannell has constructed. The movie takes place in the not so distant future where cars can drive themselves; every house seems to have their own personal Alexa-type machine built into the house itself and people have started to build tech into their bodies. The world that Whannell has constructed feels believable and in some cases inevitable. The movie takes advantage of this and builds the revenge story into a tale of man and machine.
The neat little twist with Stem is it talks inside Grey’s head. Stem is voiced by Simon Maiden and his voice has a hint of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like 2001, one of the best characters (if not the best) is the machine, Stem. One of the weaknesses of Upgrade is the lack of strong characters around Grey. Grey himself is well rounded. Wisely a good deal of time is spent with Grey’s grief after becoming paralyzed. This “everyman” fights back against everyone’s over-reliance on technology and likes to fix up old classic cars. Spending this time with him paralyzed informs why a man like that would agree to the surgery that installs Stem. Together the pair makes for a fascinating dynamic. This dynamic leads to some good comedy, creative action sequences and even a thoughtfulness on the morality of the revenge tale itself. Stem does become more than a voice inside Grey’s head and becomes the stand out aspect of the movie.
The characters around Grey and Stem are serviceable at best. The wife is just the loving wife. The police are just police. The bad guys are a missed opportunity. While they cool and mysterious at first, Whannell drops the ball to really make the villains compelling.
With the duel characters of Grey and Stem there is quite a healthy dose of social commentary in the movie. The movie raises a lot of questions about humanity and whether it’s a violation to allow something to take over our bodies, while also being a tale about man’s relationship with the technology itself. For some, it may be a missed opportunity for Whannell to not dive in more heavily into those themes and there is certainly a feeling that something even more thoughtful could have come out of this. But while Whannell may not be answering those questions directly (or even diving that deeply into them) but Whannell is at least crafted a movie that asks those questions. Upgrade doesn’t sidestep them and not think about the moral consequences of revenge, whereas a less skilled filmmaker might just ignore them completely in favor of a collection of hard-hitting action scenes.
Speaking of hard-hitting action scenes, Upgrade has got them. Make no mistake this is an action movie (and a bloody gory one). Grey uses Stem to help him take on his opponents. Whannell uses this to create a steady almost robotic sense of action from the camera’s perspective. When Stem takes over in the fight the camera moves very precisely. When Grey flips in the air the camera will rotate with him but it is never disorienting. Upgrade doesn’t fall prey to the “shaky cam” or rapid editing of action movies like Taken or even Fast and Furious. But, the action of Upgrade isn’t as smooth as John Wick fight scenes (which are the high water mark of the genre right now). It is as precise and technologically inclined as its characters are with robotic sound effects being overlapped with the camera movements and choreography. The fights are brutal with several scenes of heavy blood gore and Whannell relishes in that, really bringing to life the B-movie charm that seems lacking in many genres based action movies today. Plus you add in the musical score by Jed Palmer and you have yourself some thrilling setpieces.
The movie’s story also is stronger than expected. Upgrade consistently had me guessing and took the plot in directions I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know if all the twists work in the movie and there might be a bit of lapse in logic in some of the movie’s final moments (although I’m not fully committed to that criticism until I watch the movie again). But, revenge tales often get boring because of their predictability but Upgrade manages to avoid many of the revenge tale pitfalls and does the clichés, that are remaining in the movie, well.
With a healthy dose of Terminator, Robocop, Escape From New York, John Wick, and even Spider-Man 2, Upgrade succeeds as an entertaining B-movie summer action film that deserves to be on the big screen. The strong pair of central characters make up for the stock ones that surround them and while the script doesn’t always have depth, it is none the less thoughtful with the action being well done bloody fun. Upgrade is a nice summer surprise. Blumhouse Productions (Get Out, Sinister, and The Purge) continues to show why they are so successful at smaller budget genre filmmaking and paired with Leigh Whannell they have a solid winner.