Upgrade (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: Following an unspeakable tragedy, quadriplegic mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall Green) undergoes a surgical procedure called Stem that technologically upgrades his body.

REVIEW: Three years after acquitting himself well enough from the director’s chair with INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3, Aussie writer/director Leigh Whannell mines far loftier sci-fi subject matter in his sophomore authorial affair UPGRADE (formerly titled STEM), an absorbingly anarchic if tonally uneven, low-tech-high-concept meditation on the perils of ever-pervasive technology. While Whannell may’ve bitten off more themes than can be cogently plumbed in the span of 95 minutes – he can’t quite reconcile the vastly differing poles of dark humor and stern sci-fi gravity. The import may suffer, but the overall entertainment level never really does. This, in spite of some pacing problems to boot, is due to a topically cool conceit, barbarous stints of smarting violence, and a consistently engaging lead performance from Logan Marshall Green. Sure, it may come off as a harried hybridized of HER and HARCORE HENRY, but so what, every UPGRADE stems from somewhere!

We pick up in an unnamed city in the future, where AI and automation rule the day. Driverless cars, smart homes, ubiquitous touch-screens on every household surface, you name it. Grey Trace (Marshall-Green), an open luddite who proudly works with his hands as a mechanic, lives with his professional-techie wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in sterilely cold contraption of modern technology. You know the type. After Grey and Ash visit her tech-genius rival Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) – head of the Vessel Corporation – their driverless car skids off road and crashes. Asha is pulled out of the car and shot dead in front of Grey. Insult to injury, Grey is savagely stabbed in the spine and left paralyzed from the neck down. Now in a suicidal funk, Grey is left to live a soulless existence where machinery performs everyday menial tasks for him; making protein smoothies, administering medicine, etc. It’s either that or pulling the plug. That is, until Eron approaches Grey with a chance to undergo an upgrade.

Eron implants Grey with Stem – “a new better brain” – which not only restores motor function in all four of Grey’s limbs, the operating system begins directly communicating with its host as well. Grey is not only upgraded physically, he’s overhauled mentally, and the moral murk found between Stem’s ill will and Grey’s good intent is what fascinatingly drives the narrative drama in the film. At first, Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) can only help Grey with permission. Grey obliges when the super-intelligent bot spots a clue in the video-footage of Ash’s murder and offers help in locating the culprit. Grey must confront his own moral standing as it relates to his wife’s killers, as well as the escalating autonomy Stem begins operating with. Grey wants revenge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean cold-blood murder. Stem wants survival and self-preservation, but that doesn’t necessarily rule out cold-blood murder. As these two loggerheads ram against each other in the third act, a shocking revelation comes into play that feels less like an organically earned plot twist than a kind of needlessly contrived exclamation point. And yet, somehow it all remains engrossing enough.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of UPGRADE is also one of its most irksome. I admire how Whannell, in stark opposition to the glossy techno-milieu of the futuristic cityscape, depicts the combative violence in such a gritty, low-tech manner. There’s something wild and kind of contrapuntally-punk to seeing a supercharged cyborg rely less on fancy gadgetry and more on old fashioned fisticuffs. By the same token, this tactile approach is at times so clunky in its execution – sped-up, too robotic, herky-jerky – that it almost comes off as a lame and laughable chop-socky film. Perhaps this is a byproduct of underfunded FX, but there’s at times a level of misplaced humor in the action, which aligns with some of the inconsistent one-liners and stabs at dark humor that fail to reverberate the overriding tone of sci-fi seriousness. This tends to sap the weight of the movies intended importance. Thankfully, the same low-fi approach to the fight scenes are applied to the death sequences, and the eruptions of unremitting graphic carnage help allay some of the pacing issues and disharmonic tenors. Not entirely, but just enough to keep you involved.

Another crucial element to keeping UPGRADE a lively watch, despite the overall movie feeling a bit too small-scale and slight of spectacle by cinematic sci-fi standards, is the captivating turn by Logan Marshall-Green. He gives Grey a quiet charisma, with a gruff exterior, hulking frame and deep voice that plays as a much welcome balance-point against the diametrically opposed high-tech world he finds himself in. We obligingly ride with Grey through his dissociative surroundings, whether he’s confined to a wheelchair and left only to emote from the neck up, or whether his technologically made-over physique allows him to physically dominate his foes. Marshall-Green plays both ends of the spectrum with the same level of credence, which carries the narrative a long way, even when some of the aforementioned problem-areas pop up. With an inferior performance, UPGRADE’s shortcomings would be far more unforgivably glaring. Fortunately for us, Marshall-Green is able to mask some the blemishes.

All in all, UPGRADE is by no means a substantial sci-fi game changer, or even all that an inventive of a genre-bending rule-breaker. It’s a slight, lower-case stint of cinematic science fiction, whose promising premise is almost undone by the unevenly struck tones, awkward action and unstuck twist landing. Still, due to its subversive spirit, topical poignancy, vicious lashes of violence, and well-guided performance by Logan Marshall-Green, the proceedings remain amusing enough. Like we all endure on our mobile phones every week, a minor UPGRADE can’t hurt too much!




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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.