Leigh Whannell ushered in a new subgenre of horror with Saw, terrified us with the Further in Insidious and ventriloquist dolls in Dead Silence, and even made us laugh with Cooties. Now, he explores action horror territory with Upgrade, a futuristic sci-fi film that simultaneously feels retro in its action sequences. Even better is that it comes with that sense of humor we’ve come to love and crave.
Set in the relative near future where technology pervades nearly all aspects of life, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) holds on to the past as a self-described technophobe. He works from home overhauling classic muscle cars while his wife is the breadwinner. Grey’s world is turned upside in a vicious attack that leaves him a quadriplegic and his wife dead. When his former business client offers him a chance to regain mobility by testing his experimental chip implant called Stem, he gains a new ally in the sentient A.I. that not only provides him with physical support but the perfect means for revenge.
Marshall-Green is fantastic as Grey. He’s believable as the blue-collar worker turned helpless quadriplegic suffering PTSD and grief. More importantly, he’s absolutely hysterical. Once Stem has been implanted, Grey’s sense of awe quickly turns humorous with the dawning horror of just how lethal Stem can allow him to be. That horror eventually transitions into a sort of glee, and the subsequent banter between Grey and Stem is so much fun amidst the gory fight sequences. In short, Whannell has essentially given us a bloody sci-fi action film reminiscent of the ‘80s with a lead that’s enjoying every moment, and it’s such a blast to watch unfold.
Whannell does a lot with his Blumhouse budget, lending a neon haze that suits the futuristic steam punk of the film’s aesthetic. He employs clever, yet simple camera tricks to give that robotic quality to Grey’s Stem operated movements that feel fresh. He sought to give the film a completely different fight style, considering the A.I. narrative, and I think he succeeded. Watching Grey/Stem take down his opponents is a huge component of what makes Upgrade such a crowd pleaser.
Now, the core narrative isn’t wholly original, and there are countless other films and stories that have told the tale of man-seeking-vengeance. But at least it’s something that Whannell uses as a means to manipulate the audience; when you think you know just how the story will play out (and it mostly does), he reveals that he was a step ahead of you the entire time.
Upgrade isn’t a gamechanger or groundbreaking, but it’s not really trying to be. This is Whannell stretching his legs in new terrain, and the result is a fun thrill-ride. There’s gore, sci-fi, action, humor, and a lot of passion from everyone involved. There’s even the trademark Billy the puppet Easter egg and nods to James Wan if you’re an eagle-eyed viewer. For fans of Whannell (and you should be) or fans of nostalgic action films of the ‘80s, this is for you. It’s fitting that it’s getting a summer release, because despite its low budget, it’s every bit the grand spectacle film that summer blockbusters are known for and it’s worth the price of admission.
Upgrade is releasing in theaters on June 1, 2018.