Leigh Whannell's Upgrade is rooted in classic sci-fi, but with healthy doses of horror and slick action, it's a surprisingly fresh and thrilling ride.
Blumhouse Productions has made its name over the last decade with exceptionally successful horror franchises, including Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge. But amid the franchises, Blumhouse has made room for plenty of non-franchise fare - especially, it seems, films that don't easily fit into any one genre. One of Blumhouse's biggest successes of 2017 was Jordan Peele's Get Out, a horror movie that also acted as a social satire dealing with racism. Now, Blumhouse's latest mixes a number of genres and reteams the studio with a writer-director they've worked with in the past on their Insidious franchise. Leigh Whannell's Upgrade is rooted in classic sci-fi, but with healthy doses of horror and slick action, it's a surprisingly fresh and thrilling ride.
Set in a technologically advanced near-future with self-driving cars and biomechanical implants, Upgrade introduces Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a luddite who prefers to do things with his own two hands. He's unlike his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), in this way, and he makes a living fixing up classic cars that he eventually sells. It's through his work that he meets Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a world-renowned biomechanical developer who heads his own company. However, Grey's life is brought to a halt when he and his wife are in an accident and attacked by a group of technologically enhanced criminals.
Asha is killed in the attack, while Grey is left paralyzed from the neck down. After some time spent as a quadriplegic, Grey is approached by Eron, who offers to implant him with his latest biomechanical enhancement - a computer chip called STEM. With STEM, Grey is able to walk and use his arms again, but he also has a great deal of extra abilities afforded to him by the technological implant, including enhanced speed, agility, and tactical knowledge. After being implanted with STEM, Grey sets out to help Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) find the men who killed Asha and bring them to justice. Unfortunately, there seems to be troubling side effects to STEM, and it's unclear whether Grey will survive the path he's started down long enough to avenge his wife.
Written and directed by Whannell, Upgrade draws inspiration from a number of classic movie concepts and tropes. The inciting incident wherein Asha is killed and it becomes the motivation for Grey's vigilante justice has been plotted out many times before in the action thriller genre. Furthermore, the rumination of man versus technology, specifically artificial intelligence such as robots or STEM, has been explored across all forms of science fiction media - from modern movies and television, to classic novels and short fiction. Boiled down to its most basic aspects, Upgrade is constructed of parts that are exceptionally familiar. Because of this, it may be difficult to refrain from comparing it to other films that have explored similar plotlines and concepts, like Death Wish or The Punisher or Robocop or Ex Machina. But the truth is that Upgrade is all of these movies, and so, it stands apart.
Upgrade balances action and humor in a way that is typical of the action-adventure genre, with a sarcastic and quippy lead in Grey Trace. The action, with plenty of quirky and eye-catching camerawork, feels unlike most Hollywood action movies and, with certain mechanical sound effects utilized at key moments, adds to the futuristic motif of the movie. The humor doesn't always work quite as well, though Marshall-Green carries off most of those moments well enough. Still, at times his delivery in certain scenes blur the line between humor that fits with the tone of the rest of the movie and over-the-top camp. Gilbertson's Eron walks a similarly fine line between awkward tech genius and unbelievably strange. For the most part, though, the strangeness of both Grey and Eron fits within the world of Upgrade - a world very much like our own, but different enough to inspire a bizarre sense of verisimilitude.
It's this depth of the fictional universe in which Upgrade takes place that presents a compelling sci-fi tale, building off the concept of humans vs. robots. Since the world is fleshed out with others who are enhanced with biomechanical implants, Upgrade has a great deal of potential to dig into the questions of what it means to be human and whether mankind can keep up with ever-evolving technology. The movie seems to take a definitive stance on these questions that sci-fi creatives have mulled for decades, and it's one that may prove divisive - but it's also somewhat refreshing. In a genre as popular as sci-fi, Upgrade's own ruminations on well-worn concepts aren't necessarily original, but they're earned by the ending of the film.
Whannell uses his experience in horror - working with acclaimed horror writer-director James Wan and on Blumhouse's Insidious franchise - to elevate the genre and bring something new to the table. For fans of Whannell and Blumhouse, there's plenty to enjoy in Upgrade, which uses its near-future setting to explore the body horror of the population's biomechanical enhancements. However, because Upgrade draws on a number of different genres, not just sci-fi, there's a great deal of untapped potential hidden within the movie's brisk hour and 35-minute runtime. The film's futuristic world could be further explored, though it should be said that Upgrade provides enough world-building to sufficiently tell its story. Still, viewers will no doubt be left wanting more.
Altogether, Upgrade offers a unique combination of action-thriller and sci-fi/horror, blending the genres together for what is ultimately an enjoyable moviegoing experience. The film is somewhat derivative of everything that has come before, but as the writer and director, Whannell put his own spin on the genres and was able to build something new. Undoubtedly, Upgrade draws on ideas that are well-worn, and while it doesn't quite break the mold, perhaps the movie does crack the mold just a bit. It's not necessarily groundbreaking, like Blumhouse's Get Out, but neither is Upgrade your typical sci-fi, horror, or action movie - it's something more and something that is wholly entertaining.
Upgrade is now playing in theaters. It runs 95 minutes and is rated R for strong violence, grisly images and language.
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