Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is old beyond his years. The kind of man whose eyes seem to be constantly searching for some remaining shred of the “good old days”, he is a relic of another era – namely ours. After all, in the near distant future of Upgrade, everything from driving to cooking has become automated, making Grey – a grizzled mechanic and homebody who spends his days tinkering with vintage cars – an outsider.
So when Grey is rendered paraplegic some 20 or so minutes into Upgrade, shot during an attack that also takes the life of his young wife, you immediately get the sense of what he has lost. His cruel fate befits a film written and directed by one of the masterminds behind the Saw franchise, Leigh Whannell, but it also creates an immediate sense of emotional stakes, grounding the strange twists and turns of a script that incorporates splashes of horror, sci-fi, and black-as-tar comedy. Confined to a wheelchair, Grey hasn’t just lost his means of making money. He’s lost his very place in the world.
Watch the Upgrade trailer here:
It also means you don’t bat an eye when Grey makes a decision that others might find unthinkable, offering himself up as a guinea pig for a device, STEM, that will give him the power to walk again. And it accounts for Grey’s almost immediate pivot from quiet, subdued luddite to STEM-assisted serial killer, an automated murdering machine desperate to take out those who have robbed him of his entire way of life.
At this stage, the genre allusions that litter Upgrade might be making themselves clear – this is Robocop for the Google Home generation, an extraordinarily tight and entertaining new genre classic that has all the searing social satire of Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece. As Upgrade goes on, it becomes increasingly unclear who is really in charge – the emotional, bitter Grey, or the calmly voiced STEM (Simon Maiden), and the lines between man and machine become increasingly blurred.
Hardie is emblematic of the anti-authoritarian, tech bro-suspicious bent of Upgrade.
Not, mind you, that this is some kind of heady exercise in academia: on the contrary, in fact. This is one of the most thrilling, fucked-up films of the year, a cult masterpiece constructed out of scrap metal and human viscera. Like Verhoeven, Whannell knows to keep the plot as tight as a drum, and it’s only after Upgrade’s lean 95 minutes are up that the broader social criticism really begins to sink in. For the length of its running time, Upgrade is as immediate and uncomplicated as a switchblade pressed against the throat.
Whannell’s debut as a director, Insidious: Chapter 3, while very solid, was clearly just a warm-up: it’s with this film that he shows off the full breadth of his talents, pulling off a hire-wire act that sees him navigate comic interludes about ninjas, Shaw Brothers-esque fight scenes, and an inspired, devastating twist ending.
Watch a clip from Upgrade here:
The performances are uniformly excellent. Marshall-Green takes the sad-eyed devastation of Charles Bronson and ramps it up to 11, remaining painfully human even as his body becomes increasingly mechanised, while Benedict Hardie brings an odd, clipped malice to his role as cyborg gangster Fisk. Indeed, Hardie is emblematic of the anti-authoritarian, tech bro-suspicious bent of Upgrade: the film’s villains aren’t thick-necked brutes, they’re Bill Gates types retro-fitted with gun arms and micro-robots they can sneeze out at their enemies.
That said, it’s Maiden who really steals the film. An unholy cross between Siri and Patrick Bateman, STEM is an all-knowing, unstoppable force, ruthless in ways that Grey finds that he simply cannot be. And it is Maiden’s eerily calm, hypnotic voice that lingers after the devastation, comedy and horror of Upgrade is done – his voice that lodges in the brain.
After all, there’s a lot that our world of devices and apps lets us do, and Whannell knows that. But it’s not hard to imagine Fisk and his Elon Musk-esque buddies are waiting for us somewhere down the line – the retro-fitted monsters creeping about in the long shadow of Silicone Valley.
Rating: Four And A Half Stars Out Of Five