Leigh Whannell’s "Upgrade" is a B-movie – a riff on Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop," filled with high-tech-paranoia and nastily rendered revenge dramatics. In other words, it's just what the doctor ordered. In a movie world filled with film releases that try to scream out "me! me! me! me!" Whannell's film feels like a fresh oasis as it sets out to build up a familiar world but with a new fresh set of eyes and an irresistibly dark atmosphere.
The main character in "Upgrade," Grey Trace (charismatically overplayed by Logan Marshall-Green) suffers a major tragedy, he and his wife (Melanie Vallejo) are ambushed by an unknown gang of thugs that have guns transplanted inside their palms (actual handguns!). His wife is murdered and Grey suffers a debilitating spinal injury, which turns him into a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. However, since the film takes place in an unknown futuristic society, enter Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), an Elon Musk-like tech visionary that decides to test his latest invention Stem, a tiny microchip which he touts as “a new, better brain,” on Grey's body and which allows him to, miraculously, move his arms and legs .
Stem has to be kept a secret, Grey can't tell anybody that he can walk again, not even his own mother and definitely not Cortez (Betty Gabriel) a detective that tries to review surveillance-drone footage of the attack to find any possible leads that could find the murderers. Impatience has Grey deciding to take the law into his own hands and, with the aide of Stem, which is voice activated and can put together crime-scene clues faster than Cortez ever dreamed she could, our protagonist goes on an avenging manhunt to find his wife's killers.
Budgetary constraints don't hold back the film's sheer pleasures, it was made at a ridiculously slim cost ($3M). Whannell proves to be a minor visionary with big ideas. His warnings about tech and its dangers are alarmingly scathing. It's no surprise then to find that this talented writer-director also penned the screenplays for both "Saw" and "Insidious," horror films with a lot more on their minds than just laying down typical genre-exercises.
"Upgrade" doesn't always transcend its B-movie schlockiness, but that's part of its endless charms. It knows exactly what it wants to be and Whannell's deeply ingrained barrage of wide shots, passionately delivered via Stefan Duscio's well-honed lenses, deliver what fans of the genre truly want. However, what, surprisingly, makes the film resonate, what makes it stick its landing, as they say, isn't just its uprooted cinematic cojones, but rather its surprising last-minute revelations, intellectual condemnations of a future not too far ahead of us which give the film some extra pounds of meat -- to be seriously absorbed, and pondered as more than just mere brain candy. [B/B+]
"Upgrade" is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.