Review: Taken’s Gory Sci-fi Cousin—Upgrade9 May 2018
Content warning: mentions of violence and gore
Upgrade is a sci-fi action gorefest written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
After witnessing his wife’s murder and being shot in the neck, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is left quadriplegic and sent into a suicidal depression. Months later, billionaire tech guru Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) offers to cure his disability by implanting an experimental artificial intelligence in his spine. As the power of his new “upgraded” body is revealed, Grey seeks vengeance against the men who killed his wife.
I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t 2008. We’ve seen so many one-man-revenge-quest movies in the last decade that it takes a lot for one to stand out, but Upgrade succeeds by keeping plot secondary to mood. The film never lets you rest. It’s always depressing, unsettling, or downright creepy. While the narrative doesn’t deviate too much from what’s expected, the storytelling itself is genuinely unique. I was captivated and caught off-guard more than once by Whannell’s direction.
The editing here is superb. Once he gets the AI chip, the camerawork and motion effects shift to reflect Grey’s robotic actions. A few scenes even sync the camera directly to the uneven, mechanical movements of his torso. Whannell injects almost every scene with enough ambient music and dim-lighting to make the film’s sci-fi world consistently unnerving. Think Her’s tech-happy world meets Drive’s edgy aesthetic and sound design.
Further driving Upgrade’s unsettling tone is the violence, which is consistently graphic and brutal to the point of being physically repulsive at times. Multiple shots really linger on open wounds, and you can tell the sound designers enjoyed capturing the hiss of knife through flesh.
Upgrade touches on a lot of sci-fi themes, perhaps in an attempt to separate itself from the formulaic plot. It grapples with the implications of AI, mass-redundancy and poverty in a robot-run world, and the ethics of technologically-altering humans. I appreciated the gesture, but there just wasn’t enough attention paid to any of these themes for them to resonate with me. When it comes to philosophical sci-fi, you’ve got to be original or just better than the competition. Unfortunately, Upgrade succeeds at neither.
The only other glaring issue I had with Upgrade was its approach to humour and relationships between characters. Grey’s tale is a personal one, and its best when he’s not having long conversations. Thankfully Grey’s interactions with STEM the AI (voiced by Simon Maiden) were by far the most convincing. The film is so gloomy that the intermittent attempts at humour felt jarring every time, and they just weren’t funny. Leigh Whannell directs and edits well, but that element of the writing took me out of the experience a couple of times.
Upgrade is a great time if you’re down for a confronting and exciting experience. I highly recommend it to folks who enjoy sci-fi and gory action, and don’t need a rock solid plot to have a good time. Squeamish viewers should skip this one for sure.