Indie filmmakers have a particular talent for extending a clever logline to its absolute limit. Leigh Whannell shares that same talent; he takes a familiar and almost bad-shit crazy idea like that of a man being given a chance at revenge by being given a small computer chip implant called STEM (Simon Maiden) to its absolute limit, and then he strides past that barrier. A technological innovation that allows this violently made quadriplegic and technophobe Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) to gain access to his limbs once again, STEM (Simon Maiden) does that for him, as well as becoming a new friend that only he can hear. One that speaks into the drums of his ears and provides a vaster sense of knowledge and ability to himself, but also an inherent danger.
It’s a “Blade Runner” meets “RoboCop” kind of tale, a man turning to technology to return to life but also to hunt down the men that took that life away from him as well. It takes place in a world that feels apart of that noirish world of “Blade Runner,” almost feeling mimicked even. The grungy technologically advanced future that feels far more disconnected, despite the lack of available connectivity, which is not a nuance theme by any means. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is a technophobe with a wife who works for a tech company. He’s a grease monkey that fixes manually driven cars, while she rides in a car that drives itself home.
After dropping off one of his renovated projects to a wealthy technological innovator, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who introduces him to his newest prototype known as STEM (Simon Maiden), this self-driving car goes haywire. Driving off the road and an accelerated speed before crashing and flipping upside down. The droned recording devices for the Police arrive promptly to watch a group of men come and kill Grey’s (Logan Marshall-Green) wife and paralyze him completely. These droned footage finders are unable to assist in finding these murders though, seeing as they removed some kind of chip that allows them to remain escapable from the reach of the law because criminals always find a way, don’t they?
Drenched in grief and unable to overcome his lack of physical ability, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) finds himself unable to desire to live. Being offered a reset on his life by Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), he states “I’m not looking for the reset button kid, I’m looking for the off switch.” He gives in though, reminiscing on the idea of what his wife would want for him. The procedure goes all-too-well, and he soon finds himself with a technological “Upgrade” that pushes him towards vengeance in a sequence made famous by the trailer in which he gives STEM (Simon Maiden) permission to take over his bodily functions. Making for some exceptional acting from Logan Marshall-Green in which he delivers facial expressions of surprise and third-person perspectives because his body is now a separate entity from his mind.
It makes for Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde kind of character, but a character that was never brought to light enough to evoke resonance from me. He hates technology and something terrible happened to him is about all we learn about the man controlled by a machine, but the action and surprisingly hefty themes attached to his character’s journey provide that extra boost that the film needed which harkens back to an indie filmmaker stretching an idea as far as possible.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (“Saw” & “Insidious”), “Upgrade” is an expected action flick with no heart and no ambition, but becomes an action film hidden inside of a sci-fi drama discussing the dangers of technology and our desire for self-happiness over human prosperity. Whannell stretches this story way farther than expected, writing something that continuously maintains a constant state of investment in this world, despite his characters never making me fret for their well being.
There is some insane ingenuity that makes for sheer cinematic momentum like that of a gun for an arm or sneezing razor-wired germs. This is a world that weaponizes the limitless potentials of technology, and one that remains to feel both original and reprinted from fellow sci-fi masters. It’s not just the world-building, or the ingenuitive writing that becomes too big for its own good, Leigh Whannell also visualizes this story exceptionally.
The camera movement is especially interesting because it's both frustratingly cutting while maintaining childlike excitement. The camera snips and snaps in some fight scenes, but in others, it moves with our hero, like that of something out of a video game or a comic book. It pushes the limits of camera maneuverability while allowing the flaws of the quick cutting of the action genre to remain prevalent. It’s as if Leigh Whannell got lazy on some days, and was caffeine filled excited on others.
Someone that remains consistent is Logan Marshall-Green, who is the only actor worth mentioning because everyone else plays the stereotypical bad guy or necessary girlfriend. He provides a performance that gives his character far more emotion that it deserves, he delivers one of his best performances yet, but his character noticeably limits his reach at times.
Unlike that character though, Leigh Whannell surpasses the limits of this fun-filled logline of a screenplay. He goes further and more profound than expected, but that third act finale is a bit too much. He slams on the gas pedal towards something ambiguous and thought-provoking when he should have steadily applied pressure towards the finish line.
He’s expanding “Upgrade” past my expectations, and he helms it remarkably, but like every other compliment I can give him, there is a fair critique to be stated. Constantly pushing the film too far, and not far enough. He extends it to the point that is sheerly remarkable that it all makes sense that we went from a man on a path of vengeance to a philosophical glimpse on our desire for happiness. Our mind has limits, and this film does too, I just hope Leigh Whannell didn’t pull anything while stretching “Upgrade” to it’s stumping finale.