Cyberpunk Aesthetics And Dark Humor Run Wild In “Upgrade,” A Great Work Of Low-Budget Sci-Fi

By Steve Pulaski

The year is unknown, but it’s the not-so-distant future. City skylines boast technologically advanced buildings with what looks like post-postmodern architecture, roads are occupied largely by driverless vehicles, and even homes have become “smart” in the sense that they know and communicate with their occupants. Amidst this brave new world, we zero in on Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo). She has embraced the new technology, enjoying all the innovations around her that have made her existence both pleasurable and convenient. He, on the other hand, is a mechanic, still working on cars that rely on human beings to control them, and values being disconnected in several respects more than those around him.

A billionaire tech tycoon named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) tries to convince Grey that A. I. is the way of the future, something his wife has already accepted, but fails to wow him even after showing off his latest gadget — a tiny, roach-like widget known as “STEM” that can take over and improve anything and everyone. Grey and Asha leave unconvinced, and on their way home, a car accident leads to an encounter with a group of degenerates who murder Asha and leave Grey paralyzed from the neck down. After weeks of living in isolation, relying on his mother (Linda Cropper) and robotic arms to do all the tasks he can no longer do himself, Eron re-emerges into Grey’s life with a proposition. He can surgically plant the aforementioned device inside Grey’s body, which would give him control over all his limbs again, but his recovery must remain secret. The surgery is a success, but Grey soon learns that STEM is capable of more than just helping him regain his movement.

I knew there was a reason I made a pledge to myself to see every BH Tilt effort in theaters and Upgrade is yet another hit for Blumhouse’s division dedicated to niche, low-budget offerings. It’s a deceptively nasty, cyberpunk fever-dream with kinetic action, sardonic humor, and intrigue, all of which it uses as fuel for its high-octane concept. It’s the uncommon film of the genre that is clearly inspired by a host of films that came before it — Blade RunnerRoboCop, and The Crowjust to name a few — yet doesn’t settle for being a derivative work. It bravely supplants the inevitable tendency of audiences comparing it to past works in a critical tone by committing to what it knows it does best: merging the stylistic integrity of a futuristic world with the timeless tactic of body-horror and martial arts-inspired action sequences. If all of this sounds like a mouthful, it’s because it is.

The film was written/directed by Leigh Whannell, a longtime collaborator of James Wan who was instrumental in getting successful horror franchises such as Saw and Insidious off the ground. Similar to John Krasinski shocking almost everyone with his foray into the horror genre with this year’s A Quiet Place, Whannell goes beyond torture and the supernatural to bring something that appears to be the odd-duck of his filmography. Upgrade is taut in its tension and choreographed with a great deal of poise, the likes of which akin to Atomic Blonde with its breakneck speed as well as it essentially begging you to rewind and watch all its fight scenes unfold again. Just as impressive as the choreography itself is the way Whannell and editor Andy Canny present the action to us: with crisp visuals and a delightful sense of placement. Rather than lose us in a fit of robotic punches and superhuman combat, Whannell and Canny keep us in the action by reminding us that clarity is key in these unpredictable scuffles.

Cinematographer Stefan Duscio also has a hand in making Upgrade the nightmarish and visually compelling film that it is. With a budget no larger than $5 million, the film often looks better and more striking than films with twenty times its spending power. Part of the reason is that the filmmakers establish a mood in conjunction with a world. They show just enough of the technology-driven environment to evoke an ominous feeling of dread and further expand on it by staging several scenes in grim underbellies that look as if they are advertisements for urban decay (seedy bars, rundown flats, etc). Duscio is effective at capturing these places authentically, and even in the most dimly lit locales, his unwavering talent in capturing the events vividly in a way that make them great to look at remains constant.

Upgrade drips with style and flair, and it’s the kind of film like DreddEx MachinaBlade Runner 2049, and more recently, Annihilation insofar that it will go on to be appreciated overtime, as it’s gradually discovered by its target audience. Although it has many tricks that make it a rousing success, one of its most laudable is Whannell’s ability to infuse dark comedy into the film’s script, even when it’s present in a scene where a man’s faced is split in half at the mouth by a butcher knife. The possibility of mishandling such material is larger than most people would assume. Nonetheless, Whannell treads the fine-line confidently and that too is part of what makes Upgrade so much fun.

Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Betty Gabriel, Melanie Vallejo, and Benedict Hardie. Directed by: Leigh Whannell.

Grade: B+