Review: 'Upgrade'

By: Heather Seebach

Fourteen years ago, Leigh Whannell was chained to a filthy bathroom floor with Cary Elwes in Saw but it paid off with a well-earned spot in horror's hall of fame. Since he and frequent collaborator James Wan went their separate ways (hopefully not forever), Leigh has been occasionally taking up the mantle of director. His latest endeavor as both writer and director is Upgrade, an outrageously fun sci-fi thriller that embraces Whannell's blood-soaked roots while exploring a bleak vision of a near-future ruled by technology.

Logan Marshall-Green (aka: that guy you keep thinking is Tom Hardy but isn't) stars as Grey, a mechanic who still prefers the hands-on approach despite living in a world of self-driving cars, surveillance drones, and bionic implants. He lives a happy domestic life until a brutal attack by thugs leaves him paralyzed and his wife dead. Stricken with grief and hopelessness, Grey is at the end of his rope when a billionaire inventor offers him a second chance at a normal life in the form of a spinal implant called STEM. Once installed, the tiny AI device can speak directly to Grey and it gives him the ability to walk again. More importantly, it also gives him superhuman physical powers to use in avenging his wife's death.

Despite the depressing nature of the narrative, Whannell delivers it with gleeful abandon. Grey is an average Joe who is suddenly gifted the abilities of a brilliant, bad-ass killing machine. His horrified reactions to STEM are hilarious, as are the sassy retorts of the AI itself which occasionally sound a bit like Ron Howard's sarcastic Arrested Development narrator. The laughs quickly give way to shocked gasps, however, when Whannell reminds us who co-created the Saw franchise. The gore is not steady but when it comes, it takes no prisoners. Expect a chorus of "God DAMN!"s from your theater audience. The ultimate result is like a gory, funny version of Knight Rider.

For all its brutality, Upgrade also has a surprisingly amount of heart, as well. The scenes that follow Grey's attack are downright heart-breaking as he struggles with grief, loneliness, and the sad realities of life as a quadriplegic. Marshall-Green is equally good as both wounded widower and cybernetic avenger. The script juggles humor, violence, and sadness adeptly with plenty of twists along the way. Add to that some body horror, creative fixed-camera techniques, and some incredible sound effects. From the cybernetic noises to off-screen gore, the sound effects are seriously awesome.

After the most recent trailer for Venom (starring actual Tom Hardy), there were inevitable comparisons to this film, as that story also involves a man with chatty parasite that has given him superhuman abilities. I will of course hold all judgment on that movie until I see it but I am skeptical that it will come close to the creativity and - for lack of a better term - balls of this one. Upgrade hearkens back to the gritty sci-fi thrillers of my childhood. At a recent screening of the film in Washington D.C., Whannell said he was inspired by films like Robocop and The Terminator, and those influences definitely show. The only way to make Verhoeven more proud would be to throw some tits in there (just kidding - it's not the 1980s anymore).

Those 80s cyborg actioners were so awesome because of their knack for combining relevant science fiction and unflinching violence. Upgrade brings this idea into the modern world where autonomous vehicles are quickly becoming a reality, and where most households already have Siri or Alexa. Technology can be a blessing (like Alex Murphy given a second chance) or a curse (see: Skynet). The warnings about technology in Upgrade are hardly new, but the delivery certainly is. I especially recommend seeing this one in the cinema, as its wicked sense of humor and unbridled violence are best enjoyed with a crowd of horrified normies.

 out of 5

Upgrade hits theaters in the U.S. on June 1st!

Like the post? Share with your friends!

Also find us here: