Cinema: ‘Upgrade,’ A Fun And Action-Packed Sci-Fi Horror That Doesn’t Hold Back Its Punches
Upgrade is a gripping film that tells the story of a man who’s lost everything after being paralyzed from the neck down. It starts slow, but once it gets rolling, it’s one impressive ride. Audiences follow Grey, a man who’s wary of technology and prefers to get things done the old-fashioned way, as he’s forced to adapt to a life where he has to rely entirely on technology. Receiving an untested and experimental piece of technology known as STEM, Grey regains the ability to move his body again but soon realizes STEM has a mind of its own. Grey must then struggle to enact revenge on those who wronged him all while trying to retain his humanity.
Like most Blumhouse movies, Upgrade was made on a very small budget. With an estimated production cost of three to five million dollars, that is an insanely small amount for a science fiction movie. Despite this, Upgrade makes great use of its budget, managing to look better than films with twenty times the budget. The practical effects in this movie were very creative and well done, and never once did it feel like the movie was cheating by not showing shots or panning away. The times that CG was required still looked great too and seamlessly fit in with the world. While the movie may not boast landscapes quite as incredible as the ones found in Blade Runner 2049, it still amazed me how well designed and believable the world of Upgrade was. Clearly, a lot of time and planning went into crafting each scene and it shows.
Even though Upgrade is generally more thrilling than scary, there are still plenty of genuinely horrifying moments and themes to be found throughout the film. Besides a good bit of physical gore, the idea of something other than you controlling the movements of your body by itself is a very scary and unsettling concept. I appreciated that the movie took time to mull this over as Grey struggled with STEM murdering a man while controlling him. The movie could have just as easily skimmed over this moment like many revenge oriented movies do, but taking the life of another human being, even a bad one, is still a life-changing and devastating moment. Grey’s lack of bloodlust and disgust for what he was forced to do, not only helps audiences better sympathize with Grey, but also leads to a sense of uncomfortableness and dread.
The directing in Upgrade was fantastic as well. Writer turned director, Leigh Whannell, has really come a long way from his directorial debut Insidious: Chapter 3. Much of this movie was creatively shot, especially the way that the camera followed Logan Marshall-Green during fight scenes, which were extremely exciting and tense. The action scenes were fast paced and a ton of fun. It’s hard to remember the last time I enjoyed an action movie this much. Over the top and gory, the film almost reached Tarantino levels of bloodshed. The over the top nature of many of the fights scenes helped to keep the audience from becoming overly depressed or miserable from the brutality of some scenes. At the same time though, it never became too cartoony that you stopped taking the movie seriously. It’s a wonderful balance, not found in many films.
One thing I did not expect from Upgrade was how surprisingly funny it was at times. There were several great moments of dark humor and there was even a time I laughed out loud pretty hard. Now while so many films these days feel the need to force in humor every other line, Upgrade knew when to drop a funny line and when to keep things serious. Not once did any of its funny moments feel forced or out of place and the movie kept a very consistent tone throughout. The excellent use of color in Upgrade also helped set the tone of many scenes as well. Dark and hued lit scenes made for a moody atmosphere and helped put us in the same mindset as Grey, without him even needing to say a word.
Despite Upgrade’s high quality overall, it isn’t free of flaws. The acting was by far the weakest part of the movie, with Logan Marshall-Green’s performance being very inconsistent. On the one hand, his body acting was especially well done. Whenever he was being controlled by STEM, Logan made many very subtle changes to his actions. A lot of time and energy clearly went into making sure each of his movements lacked the causality of a human and instead felt more artificial. Logan was even able to bring some good emotional depth to the character as he fought to keep control. However, on the other hand, there were many times where he wasn’t as convincing. Whenever Logan became overly confident and smug, it felt as if he was playing an entirely different character. He was far too hammy and just took it a bit too far. Logan was clearly having fun delivering one-liners, but it didn’t feel in line with where that character should have been mentally after all he went through. Even before the tragedy, while the character did show shades of sarcasm and playfulness, he always came off as a more shy and restrained character. If Logan would have just toned down his cockiness a tad, it would have made for a much less distracting and better-balanced performance.
Besides the acting, there are also a few weak lines throughout the script here and there, but overall it doesn’t detract all that much from the movie. The overall message of the film was also slightly unclear as Upgrade covered several different themes throughout its run, but didn’t always follow through with them. In particular, one of the main antagonist’s goals of improving humans with technology seems to be a plot point that doesn’t particularly go anywhere. The idea is brought up and discussed, but we never get a sense of whether this a good or bad thing. STEM does cause Grey a lot of headaches throughout, but it does allow him to walk again. Not every movie has to have a clear message. I just wonder whether or not Upgrade was trying to have one or not. Either way, Upgrade does give its audiences plenty to think about. Nonetheless, while it’s lack of a clear message doesn’t really hurt the movie, perhaps a stronger thesis could have made an already great film even better.
Brutal, thrilling and physiology horrifying, Upgrade is a film that delivers exceptionally on almost every front. It is by far one of the best films I have seen this year and I can’t recommend it enough. Science fiction is a genre that can just as easily feel generic and meandering as it can cerebral and mystifying. Seeing something as great as Upgrade be made on a shoestring budget proves that if a talented and creative enough team of filmmakers put their hearts and minds to something, anything’s possible.