A tale of revenge is very common in cinema. Usually, it involves a hero – or anti-hero, depending on how you look at it – avenging an act of violence perpetrated against a spouse or loved one. It’s the type of formula that has worked very well for the likes of Taken, Law Abiding Citizen and John Wick. It could be easy to get a little tired of that particular plot line. However, writer / director Leigh Whannell manages to give this particular tale of revenge a fresh, humorous and gloriously violent approach.
Upgrade stars Logan Marshall Green as Gray, a mechanic who likes to restore classic cars. He likes getting his hands dirty and has no time or need for the technology and AI that his wife relies on. Marshall Green is absolutely brilliant in the central role – a real driving force throughout the film who leads with humour and pathos. He’s completely credible – perhaps made more “human” in contrast to the technology swirling around him.
He, like the city he lives in, seems to be at odds with the technological advances that are creeping in to everyday life. Sure, there are driverless cars and drones, but there are still dive bars and crumbling apartment blocks. It’s not all shiny glass and metal; everywhere you look there is clear evidence of analogue (or manual) and digital struggling against each other.
After their driverless car suffers from a computer malfunction and crashes, Gray is forced to watch his wife (Melanie Vallejo) be murdered by a gang of uniquely armed criminals whilst he, himself, is a quadriplegic as a result. So, how can he avenge her death when he can’t move from the neck down?
The answer lies with STEM. Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) is a weird, Elon Musk-type recluse who lives under a rock, quite literally. He invents an implant – STEM – that will take over Gray’s body and allow him to be fully operational once again. There are moments of actual laugh-out-loud humour as Gray, the technophobe, gets to grips with having AI work within his body.
STEM not only offers Gray the chance to carry out his own detective work and catch his wife’s killers, but lightening sharp reflexes and incredible fighting technique. Like a proficient chess player, he predicts his opponent’s next move and reacts accordingly. He often finds himself up against “upgraded” humans who have bullets embedded in their biceps – giving a whole new meaning to the idea of a “gun show”.
The violence isn’t gratuitous but when it escalates, my god, it’s not for the faint-hearted. I heard jaw bones rip open. The cinematography in the fight scenes is excellent, with camera incredibly loose and fluid – an exact juxtaposition to Gray’s robot-like reflexes. Jed Palmer’s score, industrial and forceful, really adds to the more violent sequences and is absolutely pulsating throughout.
Simon Maiden provides STEM’s truly soothing, calming voice. Like Gray, we are guided by his gentle voiceovers throughout the film and are led to place our faith in his intelligence. It is slightly reminiscent of GERTY, Kevin Spacey’s equally tranquil robot in Moon.
I thought – about thirty minutes in to the film – that I had worked out the ending and so I sat quite smugly in my cinema seat awaiting confirmation of my predictions. Thankfully, Whannell leads you down one road, only to take a rather sharp exit and lead you elsewhere. I was really glad about this as it avoided the massive cliche-ridden ending that I had anticipated.
It’s likely that Upgrade will disappear from cinemas fairly soon. Virtually all of the cast – no pun intended – are something of an unknown quantity and, for a sci fi film, it’s fairly low budget. This is a real shame as it is an excellent piece of cinema. I had no expectations whatsoever walking into the screening and was more than pleasantly surprised by it all. The performances, the execution, the cinematography and the soundtrack are all superb.
And who doesn’t like a bit of unsettling sci fi ultra violence?