Summers are lean times at the multiplex if you enjoy cheap thrills. It’s the prime time for studios to roll out their tentpole movies, guaranteeing a steady diet of superhero movies, sequels and superhero sequels until the fall.
However, daring distributors will provide viewers hungry for something different during the summer with a bit of counterprogramming. Blumhouse is currently the b-movie buff’s best friend in this regard. Unlike the big studios, they keep their costs low enough that they can experiment with genre fare that takes chances. Upgrade is their current entry in this vein and it offers a fun cyberpunk variant on the revenge film.
The premise is Death Wish by way of Robocop, with bits of Knight Rider, Blade Runner and Frankenstein thrown in. In the near future, mechanic and luddite Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is distraught when his tech executive wife is murdered and he is paralyzed after fighting her attackers. He gets an unexpected chance at revenge when one of his clients, reclusive inventor Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), offers to implant an A.I. system called STEM into his body that will give him the use of his limbs once more.
And that’s not all STEM gives to Grey: it begins talking to him, giving him heightened strength and senses as well as the benefit of computer analysis to track down the men who killed his wife. As Grey and STEM take the road to revenge, they have to dodge Eron and a detective (Betty Gabriel). Grey begins to uncover a sinister plot behind his wife’s death and learns that his computer-assisted lethal skills have both benefits and drawbacks.
Upgrade has been chided a bit by the hardcore sci-fi set for not being serious enough but this film really isn’t for them: simply put, this is the kind of high-concept genre fare that Hollywood used to make before it threw its full weight behind the superhero genre.
Writer/director Leigh Whannell, best known for writing horror hits like Saw and Insidious, uses the sci-fi elements to soup up his revenge scenario. He’s got no problem coming up with an array of fun sci-fi plot hooks, like a futuristic junkie den consisting of V.R. addicts and a shotgun built into a soldier’s arm that fires its bullets through the palm of its hand (thus making it a literal handgun). These are ultimately gimmicks designed to give a fresh coat of paint to a familiar narrative – but to their credit, they add variety and a surprise factor. Whannell cleverly deploys at least one per reel to continuously up the ante.
Upgrade is Whannell’s second film as director and his work behind the camera shows a likeable sense of budget-conscious ambition. He creates a convincing minimalist future on a reported budget of $5 million and achieves an interesting visual style, with some nighttime sequences that suggest Blade Runner as lit by Dario Argento’s camera crew. His action material is pretty accomplished, including an inventive technique where the camera is attached to Marshall-Green during fight sequences. These scenes hit the right mix of kineticism and grit, downplaying CGI in favor of well-staged fight choreography and a few bits of brief but attention-getting splatter makeup FX.
Upgrade also has a noteworthy ace up its sleeve in the performance of Logan Marshall-Green, who previously impressed genre fans with his dramatic work in The Invitation. This film requires more of a high-key approach, including some fun smart-assed humor in his interactions with the KITT-like voice of STEM, but he also gets to move into darker territory in the film’s latter stages. Marshall-Green handles the range of demands well, adding a charisma and an intensity that cinches it all up into a strong performance that will hopefully lead to bigger and better lead roles.
There is also solid support work from Blumhouse vet Gabriel as the detective, an intriguingly quirky performance from Gilbertson and, best of all, an unexpectedly complex turn from Benedict Hardie as the leader of the killers that target Grey’s wife. At first he seems like a garden-variety villain but Whannell gives him little moments in the dialogue that allow him to express a damaged sort of humanity as the film progresses. It’s nice little touches like that that help differentiate Upgrade from the rest of the pack.
In short, Upgrade is the kind of surprise that makes it worthwhile for the genre faithful to visit the multiplex during the summer. It’s got the action and sureness of style you’d hope for from a theatrical film but it’s also a little darker than the usual summer fare, including a surprisingly daring ending. If you want more than another superhero flick, make time to check this one out.