Upgrade takes place in the not-too-distant-future, filled with self-driving cars and smart houses at your command. Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, an analog man with a disdain for the tech around him. Once he’s attacked by a group of men, who kill his wife, he’s made a paraplegic who turns to an experimental implant, STEM, to make him walk again. The problem is STEM is driven by an artificial intelligence; yes, it makes Grey walk with added superhuman strength, but STEM starts to overtake Grey’s consciousness little by little. It’s a science fiction story that tackles with the impending singularity, while also being a gory, ultra-violent action flick. It may not stick the landing as well as it should, but it does provide enough thrills to reach a cult-like, midnight movie status.
Leigh Whannell serves as writer-director here, having previously written on the Saw and Insidious series. His first directorial effort was the ho-hum Insidious: Chapter 3, but you wouldn’t know that as Whannell infuses blistering energy to Upgrade. Its most inventive tricks come from the fight sequences—once STEM takes control of Grey’s paraplegic body, the kinetic lens stays hypnotically linked to his frame, as he leaps around, knocking out his opponents. The prosthetic work is right out of a slasher film, too—a credit to the director’s work in torture horror field. The not-too-distant future also feels well-realized. Whannell makes good use of the low budget (reportedly at Blumhouse’s $5 million model), as the production design and the set pieces within place Upgrade amongst the best-looking science fiction films of the last decade, nowhere near Blade Runner 2049, but closer to the superb Looper. Whannell's genre-jump from horror to sci-fi is an exciting one, for sure.
Marshall-Green’s leading man performance is perfect for the multi-faceted character actor—he’s filled with the determination to hunt down the gang that killed his wife, while also dealing with STEM taking over his humanity. There’s brooding, of course, but Whannell’s script injects some black humor moments that Marshall-Green makes work. There are moments when it feels a bit too unkind, though, with Grey feeling useless as a paraplegic, but it never dips into pure drama. Upgrade bounces back to the schlock pretty quick. The rest of the cast falls well into the sci-fi story trappings. There’s a detective (Betty Gabriel) that’s trying to solve the case herself, not knowing Grey is doing work on his on to solve his wife’s murder. There’s also a Steve Jobs-type (Harrison Gilbertson) who has developed STEM and initially offers it to Grey. The story isn’t an excuse for the action, and it’s compelling enough to take you to the end, as hamstrung as it becomes.
Whannell’s largest footprint to the horror genre is possibly the Saw franchise's reveals—and, boy, does it feel like he’s cribbing himself here. Once the reveal happens, attentive audience members shouldn’t be too surprised, or as surprised as Upgrade thinks you should be. There’s also a double fake-out, which muddies things further, but it’s nothing that takes away from the 90 minutes of sci-fi, genre-blending we’ve just seen. Upgrade is yet another Blumhouse Productions success—one that has just enough to say about technology meeting humanity, while also providing some bloody, memorable gore.