Warning: spoilers ahead.
The film centers around Grey Trace, played by Logan Marshall-Green, who works as a car mechanic in a near-future world of self-driving automobiles and pervasive police surveillance. Trace doesn’t want to conform to the technological wizardry surrounding him 24/7. After delivering a car to a socially awkward inventor named Eron Keen, Trace and his wife, Asha, are violently attacked by some slick-haired thugs with cyberpunk implants. Asha is killed and Trace is paralyzed, becoming a paraplegic. Trace feels his life is over, as the local police, led by Betty Gabriel’s officer Cortez, are unable to catch his wife’s killers. Trace’s world is soon flipped upside down (or rather, right-side up), when Keen contacts him and informs him of a new technological implant, called STEM, which will give Trace full control of his body, with highly enhanced abilities. STEM communicates with Trace using a HAL-like voice, played by Simon Maiden, and provides Trace with previously impossible physical abilities, allowing Trace to enact skull-shattering revenge on those responsible for his wife’s murder.
If audiences sit back, relax and don’t think too much, “Upgrade” is a crowd pleasing film that defies expectations. The mixture of drama, action, humor, and “Black Mirror” – style plotting makes the film immensely entertaining, though not without a few faults.
“Upgrade” doesn’t start off on a great note. Trace and his wife interact with cringe-inducingly cheesy dialogue that proves off-putting when one considers that viewers are supposed to become emotionally attached to Trace and, especially, his wife.
After a brutal scene in which Asha is killed, however, the previously lacklustre dialogue and characters become much easier to emotionally invest in. Trace is a damaged man, and the film takes its time showing his mental turmoil. The surprisingly thoughtful character development makes it easy for viewers to sympathize with Trace, establishing him as an increasingly compelling character as the film progresses.
Much of the joy of “Upgrade,” though, is seeing the harsh, semi-plausible world Whannel has created, as well as watching the darkly comedic interplay between Trace and STEM.
Police drones whir around nearly every street corner, self-driving cars zoom throughout crowded cities, and personalized AI systems greet their hosts as they enter their houses. Virtual reality is even treated as an addictive drug, with people permanently immersing themselves in technology to escape the real world.
It’s a downright marvel that Whannel and crew were able to beautifully visualize this world with a pint-sized budget compared to most other science-fiction films releasing nowadays. The lack of CGI, for the most part, gives the film a rough, grimy aesthetic that matches the film’s semi-serious tone.
For example, the film’s fight scenes are hilariously over-the-top and always full of bone-crunching satisfaction.
The first fight scene involves Trace initially being pinned down by a thug, requiring him to give verbal permission to STEM to take over his body. Once STEM takes over, the tides turn, big time. Trace launches himself upward, as if he’s in “The Exorcist,” and mutilates the thug, while he himself watches in horror, only having control of his head. Marshall-Green gives a great physical performance in this scene, while STEM has control and he’s just along for the brutal ride.
The camerawork in the action scenes puts viewers in Trace’s shoes, providing viewers a sense of him not being in complete control of himself. The camera moves with Trace’s every movement, making him seem like a puppet being manipulated by some all-powerful being. This camerawork, along with expert fight choreography, solidifies “Upgrade” as a film that should fully satisfy action junkies, as well as those interested in dystopian science-fiction.
Trace’s sarcastic personality plays well off STEM’s monotonal, clever dialogue, which also gives the film some surprisingly effective comedic moments.
Despite this mixture of genres, “Upgrade” is most-assuredly a film from the creator of the “Saw” franchise. Expect loads of (somewhat predictable) plot twists, copious amounts of gore and an ending that nearly goes off the rails.
The film’s soundtrack is also worth noting, employing deep, synthy growls reminiscent of the “Blade Runner” films.
Though the film is consistently compelling, there are a few distractions that might prove difficult for some viewers to overlook. Firstly, the film’s acting isn’t quite up to par overall. Marshall-Green is fine (great, even, in the action scenes), but his dramatic chops are difficult to ever take seriously, worsened by occasionally clunky dialogue. Furthermore, the other characters don’t receive much character development at all. In particular. Officer Cortez, who investigates Asha’s killers, fits right in with the film’s B-movie style, but is disappointingly underdeveloped.
The villains are also perfectly serviceable but somewhat forgettable. The technology they use, including guns implanted inside their hands, prove more interesting than the villains themselves. One main villain isn’t much at all intimidating, coming across as more annoying and irritating than anything else.
Then again, these problems don’t significantly detract from the film’s entertainment value. “Upgrade” is still one of the most surprising films of 2018, just suspend your disbelief.