There are some movie concepts that just make you laugh at the absurdity of them. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a perfect example. The title alone instills confusion and laughter, it’s a movie that knows exactly what it is and makes no bones about it. You want killer klowns turning people into cotton candy? Then look no further. It’s legitimately one of my favorite films of all time, because it knows exactly what it is, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and executes the bizarre premise perfectly. It’s rare nowadays when a wide release film just revels in its absurdity and has a great time with it. 

Upgrade takes place in the near future, following technophobic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo). Their happy life is soon turned upside down after a car accident and subsequent mugging leaves Asha dead and Grey quadriplegic. Luckily for Grey, his technological innovator friend Eron (Harrison Gilbert) has a solution: STEM (Simon Maiden), a small gadget designed to connect to anything and improve its performance. Reluctantly agreeing, STEM is implanted into Grey’s body, giving him back full control of his body. There’s a catch, though. STEM is actually an artificial intelligence, who can speak to the user and take over their body, with their permission. This turns Grey into a human weapon, and him and STEM decide to track down the people who killed his wife.

While his work has been somewhat hit and miss, I’m a fan of writer/director Leigh Whannell. He’s clearly a huge fan of the schlocky horror, action, and sci-fi films of the 70’s and 80’s, which has obviously influenced his (and former filmmaking partner James Wan’s) style. A lot of his creative ideas are almost amalgamations of his favorite films, especially since he’s acknowledged how much Se7en inspired the concept and style of SawUpgrade is no different, taking pages from the greats like RoboCop and Blade Runner, but Whannell does an admirable job at making this concept and world feel like its own. There’s a lot of neat worldbuilidng that doesn’t call attention to itself, but just exists in the background and makes the world feel more detailed. Even the opening titles are spoken by a robot voice, and not with text on screen. The year this takes place is never stated, but it’s clearly in this time where technological advancements such as self-driving cars and robotic butlers exist, but their use isn’t wide spread. Plenty of people still drive normal cars and secret dive bars where no technology is allowed can be found only in the most dangerous alley ways. 

The apprehension people have to technology and their rapidly changing world is a big theme of the film, with Grey’s technophobic attitude being the main anchor of that. He’s an auto mechanic who loves working with his hands and when he’s handicapped, he’d rather die than do anything else. Once STEM is implanted in him and starts assisting him in finding his wife’s killer, he starts realizing the benefits technology can offer. His humanity is still completely intact, however, being horrified whenever he’s forced to gruesomely slaughter people against his will. Whannell’s horror background is evident with the wickedly gory special effects, each kill shown in all their glory. Marshall-Green and Maiden have surprisingly wonderful chemistry, humorously playing off each other during the violent proceedings. Since there are a lot of ideas at work here, some of them do come off as undeveloped, especially the whole “am I more man than machine” dilemma. It’s a brisk 95 minutes, so there wasn’t a lot of room or time to fully explore everything, especially when the action is a big part. The first act takes a little while to get going, especially with the stilted dialogue and acting, but I appreciate that Whannell actually told a story here and didn’t just focus on the action. 

When you have a premise that consists of a guy with a robot inside of him that basically turns him into a ninja on a whim, you better make sure the action is good. This has, no doubt, some of the most exhilarating and creative fight sequences I’ve seen in quite some time. While some of the fights do have a lot of cuts, the camerawork is always clear and stable. That’s certainly helped that they actually used a motion stabilizer for the sequences. In order to clearly capture all of Marshall-Green’s movements, they had him wear a smart phone with an app that synced his movements to the camera. Even when the camera is spinning around and doing crazy tricks, we can still clearly see everything. This technique doesn’t just make the action stylish, but it makes everything seem more mechanical. When Grey allows for STEM to take over and the action kick off, Marshall-Green does an impeccable job at acting like he’s not in control of his own body. He’s also great during the more dramatic and emotional scenes, really carrying the film against all of the other actors, who range from mediocre to poor. 

Upgrade is one of those cheesy types of B-movies that has all of my favorite ingredients. A revenge seeking protagonist, creative worldbuilding, gory action scenes, dark comedy, and overall, a fantastic use of its concept. It feels very much like a cheesy, yet highly entertaining, sci-fi action film from the 70’s or 80’s. It’s certainly not perfect or groundbreaking, but Whannell clearly has a love and passion for genre cinema, and it shows in every single frame. Can’t wait to see what he does next, because he’s really coming into his own as a director. 


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