‘Upgrade’ is ‘Robocop’ Crossed with Early Cronenberg [The Overlook Motel]
Welcome to The Overlook Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable, I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct’.
On the latest installment of The Overlook Motel, I am looking back on Leigh Whannell’s 2018 sci-fi-action-horror hybrid, Upgrade. This genre-bending effort moves at a breakneck pace and features a twisty narrative that keeps its audience on their toes.
In the not-so-distant future, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife are involved in a car accident and subsequent violent attack, leaving Grey paralyzed and his wife dead. When an eccentric billionaire presents him with the opportunity to walk again using an experimental technology implant called Stem, Grey is reluctant. But he warms to the idea and goes under the knife. After regaining his ability to move, Grey begins to realize that his newly restored functionality has brought on a new series of dangerous complications that prove relying too heavily on technology can be deadly.
Upgrade is a thrilling tale of vigilante justice. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching Grey come back from a near-death experience to exact revenge on the people that murdered his wife. But while the experience is satisfying for a viewer, Marshall-Green plays Grey in such a way as to remind the audience that his revenge spree leaves him broken and empty. For me, that nuance of his performance makes the character far more relatable than if Grey had found everything he was looking for in his quest for revenge.
In telling Grey’s story, writer/director Leigh Whannell takes care to pay tribute to some of the legendary creators of the ‘80s. One such example sees Whannell tipping his hat to Robocop. The basic setup of a character coming back from death (or in this case near-death) with the aid of technology parallels Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece. Also reminiscent of Robocop is the gritty visuals and the almost gleeful approach to the depiction of violence. Additionally, the cadence of the Stem software’s speech and the sound of its voice are eerily similar to KITT on Knight Rider. There are also elements of early Cronenberg within. Upgrade is not nearly as grotesque as Cronenberg’s brand of body horror. But the concept of something living inside Grey and even acting independently from Grey’s wishes harkens back to themes explored in Cronenberg’s body horror days.
With all that said Whannell is not a creator that is content to regurgitate what has been done before. Upgrade manages to stand firmly on its own. Yes, Whannell wears his inspirations on his sleeve. But he’s still able to create an original and thrilling picture that serves up plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way.
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One aspect that really makes Whannell’s film stand out from his influences is the precision of his action sequences. The fight choreography and the accompanying cinematography are truly next level. Grey looks like a human but moves like a machine. And instead of cutting away or showing the action from a distance, we see everything up close. I have no clue how Whannell was able to accomplish that on an estimated budget of $5 million. But the film looks far more expensive than it should.
Upgrade received a US theatrical release that saw the flick pulling in roughly $11 million at the domestic box office. But the picture seems to have been largely forgotten since then. And that is a shame, seeing as Upgrade is tense, frightening, and supremely thrilling.
As of the publication of this post, Upgrade is streaming for free for Spectrum subscribers. Otherwise, it’s available as a digital rental on Amazon and iTunes.