By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel and Harrison Gilbertson
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell
Hardcore dystopian sci-fi thrillers can have the problem of giving us no one to root for, but writer/director Leigh Whannell handily overcomes that issue in UPGRADE. It’s as brutal and bloody as movies get, and the overall effect is exhilarating rather than bleak because of the compelling and relatable everyman hero at its center.
UPGRADE takes place at an undisclosed time in the future, though the settings appear familiar enough that the original MAD MAX’s “A few years from now” would feel appropriate. Its protagonist, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), wouldn’t be out of place in MAD MAX either, as he’s an analog enthusiast who makes his living fixing up old cars. He’s very happily married to the more tech-oriented Asha (Melanie Vallejo), and brings her along one night to deliver a restored vehicle to young, eccentric billionaire inventor Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). He introduces them to a computerized bio-implant called STEM that he’s developed, and that he claims will revolutionize neurological treatment.
With the necessary exposition swiftly established, UPGRADE is off and running. While they’re traveling home, Grey and Asha’s self-driving car goes haywire and strands them in a bad neighborhood, where they’re set upon by a quartet of vicious thugs. Asha is killed and Grey left a quadriplegic, and the convenience of the circumstances, not to mention the high-tech weapons the gang employs, hint from the start that this isn’t a random mugging. Investigatory revenge is clearly in Grey’s future, but Whannell takes time to get us deep into his post-assault psyche, which has been as trashed as his body. He plunges deep into suicidal depression, and Marshall-Green really gets us feeling for him, and wanting him to pull through and past it.
Then Keen shows up again with a way to do just that: A STEM implant that will return to Grey the full use of his body. Once the operation proves to be a remarkable success, Grey discovers STEM allows him more than mobility: The chip, which can talk to him in a voice (Simon Maiden) only he hears, gives him enhanced senses and can take over his physical actions—just what he needs to track down and take out the men who ruined his life. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Grey’s first search-and-destroy mission is a real rouser of a setpiece, as his STEM-controlled body and limbs behave with martial-arts mastery while his face registers startled surprise at his own actions. It’s thrillingly visceral and deliriously comedic at the same time—and even more effective when seen in the context of the overall film, since we’re so invested in Grey’s plight by this point. Complicating matters as he continues his vengeance quest are Keen’s insistence that Grey keep his STEM enhancement secret—he has to let the world believe he’s still wheelchair-bound—and revelations that there’s more to STEM and the villains than Grey is first aware.
After making a bloody initial splash with SAW, Whannell (with director James Wan) successfully reinvented himself as a subtler Gothic storyteller with INSIDIOUS—making his debut at the helm with the third in the resulting series—and effects another change of pace with UPGRADE. He, cinematographer Stefan Duscio and production designer Felicity Abbott evoke a very persuasive and seamless near future on their modest budget; this Blumhouse production is one of the company’s slickest achievements yet, to the point where it’s a surprise UPGRADE is going out as an indie release instead of a wider break under Blumhouse’s Universal deal. Whannell’s surehanded plotting is frequently jolted by his vigorous action scenes, as he and Duscio align the camera with Grey’s body just as STEM is, taking us right along on the brutal, exciting ride.
Similarly, Marshall-Green complements the emotional side of his performance with an often startling physicality, making it truly seem like Grey’s actions have been taken over by another entity. Maiden’s calmly authoritative delivery of STEM’s lines adds drily comedic counterpoint to the bloodshed he compels Grey toward, and Betty Gabriel (a Blumhouse regular from GET OUT and THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR) adds a necessary voice of reason as a detective who doesn’t quite buy that Grey has nothing to do with the demises of his enemies. Chief among the baddies is Benedict Hardie as Fisk, who’s not the usual black-clad, physically imposing thug but rather a wiry, ratlike creep who favors polo shirts. He’s a pleasing break from the norm in the tradition of ROBOCOP’s Clarence Boddicker, and that’s one of a few ways in which Whannell echoes acknowledged ’80s influences like Paul Verhoeven’s film and James Cameron’s original THE TERMINATOR. Like those classics, UPGRADE proves that sci-fi violence is best served via practical effects and, even more crucially, with a gripping human story at its core.