Amazon’s Alexa meets Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S in Upgrade, a viscous cybernetic revenge thriller from Insidious scribe Leigh Whannell. More stylish than anything in the director’s preceding oeuvre, the film offers a smart take of familiar conceits, with its grisly action bolstered by an abundance of charisma and exquisite choreography.
The film launches with a novel rejection of the written word – common in the ‘upgrading’ modern world – via opening titles that are read by automated tones. It’s a neat introduction to the cinematic landscape lying in wait beyond, one in which smart technology has all too plausibly advanced on the present day. Driverless cars are commonplace here and why make a protein shake when your in-home AI can do it?
From his high tech intro, Whannell cuts to the ascetically vintage studio of technophobe Grey (Logan Marshall-Green). Whilst driverless cars on yonder roads reprimand passengers for touching the wheel whilst in motion, within his garage are manual machines alone. A lover of vinyl and hands-on mechanic in a streamlined world, Grey’s last paying customer is Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), the slickly blonde head of a market leading manufacturer of smart technology. Theirs is, naturally, an uneasy relationship, as is epitomised by their clashing opinions on Keen’s latest, brain-enhancing, invention – STEM: ‘You look at that widget and see the future, I look at that thing and see ten guys on the unemployment line’.
When Grey, and wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), are assaulted by a gang, following an artfully vicious smart-car crash, she’s killed and he’s left paralysed and doomed to a life of wheelchair-bound dependence. But then, in swoops Keen, sallow, pale, childish and a thinly veiled Elon Musk imitation, with the promise of life reanimated, providing Grey is willing to accept STEM into his all-organic body. Cockroach shaped, and sized no bigger, the chip gives Grey more than he bargained for and a bloody crusade of revenge ensues.
Whannell’s pedigree in slasher horror, as the co-creator of the Saw franchise, meets the motions of a futurist John Wick in the film, which also ironically channels too Sony’s upcoming Venom, Marshall-Green and Tom Hardy being dead ringers. Upgrade is a pleasingly untamed piece for genre-fans but takes just a little too much pleasure in its increasingly violent twists. That said, the film’s witty sensibilities are enhancing and serve the action well, aided by a game Marshall-Green and deadpan Simon Maiden, giving voice to STEM through an intonation reminiscent of Scarlet Johansson’s sultry performance in Her. Grey is a hapless would-be assassin and there is an almost slapstick air to his blackly comic attacks. In one sequence, Grey yelps ‘he’s got a knife’, to which STEM cooly replies ‘so do we’. It should be more frightening, especially coming through Jason Blum’s Blumhouse, but works by virtue of its exhilarating choreography.
Engaging performances do much to root the drama through asinine later developments, whilst a combination of dynamic camerawork and stylish cinematography keeps the energy high. Captured within inspired frames and fluid filmmaking, Grey moves through his post-surgery world – believably polarised between the high tech and grubby – with robotic ill ease. If his foes are a touch one note – ‘Let my superiority of your kind be the last thought that passes through your mind before machines chew it up’ – Grey has at least emotional depth to raise the bar, brought out in a terrifically moving grooming scene.
Whereas much in Upgrade‘s plot is familiar territory, the film itself is smart, fast and fun. This is impressive work from Whannel.