While Blumhouse Productions has been gifted with some intriguing cultural cachet following last year’s Oscar-winning Get Out, the company doesn’t seem to be keen on becoming the next Merchant-Ivory. In fact, with Upgrade, Jason Blum and co. aim to keep doing what they do best: muscular, stripped-down genre flicks with small budgets and big ideas. Writer/director Leigh Whannell, who wrote most of the Saw and Insidious flicks (and made his directorial debut with Insidious Part III), has the perfect set of skills for Blumhouse’s particular mission statement. This makes Upgrade a neat potboiler that offers as much heady sci-fi speculation as it does bone-crunching genre thrills.
Upgrade sports some heady concepts, but its skeleton is built from pure revenge schlock. Set in a near future where the Internet of Things pervades every aspect of modern life from smart homes to smart cars, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) remains the kind of ruggedly analog chap who relates more to the muscle cars he fixes up than the soothing, Alexa-like widgets that fill the minimalist home he shares with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo). Unfortunately, this is a revenge film, a genre that notoriously doesn’t give supportive, idealized spouses very long to live; before long, a sabotaged navigation system crashes their car in a deserted area of the city, and a group of goons kill Asha and paralyze Grey from the neck down.
Struggling with his new life as a widowed quadriplegic, Grey suddenly gets a lifeline from Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a young, eccentric Steve Jobs type to which he’d previously sold one of his souped-up muscle cars. Eron offers him the chance to try an experimental new technology: STEM, a prototype implant that will reconnect the synapses in his brain with his spine, effectively ‘hacking’ his body and allowing him to walk again. Grey quickly agrees, and the surgery is successful, albeit illegal – he has to pretend to be quadriplegic in public, even around his mother (Linda Cropper) and the detective investigating his wife’s murder (Get Out’s Betty Gabriel).
Grey soon learns that STEM grants him other abilities as well, like superhuman strength, speed, and senses. Not only that, it turns out that his lifesaving implant has a mind of its own, and a voice only Grey can hear (Simon Maiden). Within minutes of this discovery, STEM notices something strange in the drone camera footage of his wife’s death – a clue that sets Grey off on a secret one-man mission to find the people who killed his wife and bring them to justice.
At its core, Upgrade is a no-frills revenge picture with a sly, darkly comic sensibility to its central sci-fi gimmick. While the first act does a lot of rote place-setting, with Grey and Asha woodenly calling each other “husband” and “wife” to make sure the audience knows that they’re married, Upgrade really picks up steam once Grey gets his new lease on life. The actual beats of the mystery are less important than the dynamic between Grey and STEM, as STEM becomes both the angel and devil on his shoulder, the duo switching between straight man and loose cannon depending on the situation.
Doing much of the film’s heavy lifting, Marshall-Green is positively electric to watch; he sells the pathos and frustration of having to haggle over control of his body, his grief mixing with astonishment and surprise at the various things STEM allows him to do. STEM’s forensic skills give him a wide-eyed sense of hope, which turns to abject horror as he’s forced to watch up-close as his computer-controlled limbs brutally rip apart their latest target. Marshall-Green’s physicality superbly manifests Grey’s different states of being: with STEM guiding his body, Marshall-Green’s movements become ever so slightly robotic, his arms and legs swinging with mathematical precision while he emotes and observes with his freely moving head. It’s an interesting technical performance that manages to convey surprising thematic points about assistive technology without uttering a single word.
Something else that sets Upgrade apart from similar mid-budget tech thrillers is its inventive, and appealingly teased, vision of the future. Sure, it’s got your dime-a-dozen Blade Runner cyberpunk debris (holograms, drones flying over city streets), but production designer Felicity Abbott infuses these objects with an organic sensibility that furthers the film’s thematic intermixing of the natural and artificial. Cars, computer screens, and surgical theaters are studded with honeycomb, and triangular patterns cascade like leaves down car windshields. This feels futuristic in a way we’ve rarely seen before, especially when contrasted with the down-and-dirty, modular technology of the criminal underworld Grey infiltrates in his search for revenge – including palm-implanted guns and razor-sharp nanites you can sneeze into someone’s sinus cavity, ripping them up from the inside.
And when Upgrade gets down to the business of letting its cyber-enhanced average Joe kick ass, it doesn’t disappoint. When Grey gives STEM permission to “take over” in times of danger, the supercomputer turns him into Jason Bourne on steroids, every move mathematically calculated to inflict the most damage on its target with the least effort. It’s a genuine thrill to see these action scenes at work, Whannell capturing every punch and flip with whirling-dervish camerawork that isolates Marshall-Green in the frame while the world shudders and twists around him.
As the film goes on, Upgrade gestures toward some interesting ideas about technological autonomy and the extent to which our bodies belong to us. Grey’s relationship with STEM grows ever more complicated in the film’s finale, as the two continually negotiate the lengths to which STEM acts for him. Is STEM just doing Grey’s bidding, or is Grey’s body being hijacked for some higher purpose? The answers are suitably dark, but Upgrade’s sheer energy and the strength of its concept do more than enough to elevate this revenge picture into something refreshing and eminently watchable.