SXSW 2018: Upgrade Review – A Wickedly Entertaining Sci-Fi Body Horror Thrill Ride
Written by Leigh Whannell
Directed by Leigh Whannell
Let’s make something clear right away: Upgrade is not a horror film. That being said, it’s 100% horror-adjacent and the plethora of body horror elements injected throughout will make viewers feel like they’re watching a more action-packed version of a David Cronenberg movie. Add in some shocking yet phenomenal gore, plus the writing and direction of Saw and Insidious: Chapter 3‘s Leigh Whannell, and you’ve got a movie that horror fans should have no problem flocking to.
After a mysterious car accident, everyday man Grey (Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Valejo) are assaulted by four men who kill her and cruelly paralyze him from the neck down. Grey is given the chance to participate in an unethical and highly secretive experiment by the genius yet withdrawn Eron (Gilbertson), an offer he reluctantly accepts. Embedded with a strange computer chip named Stem that essentially bridges the brains messaging to the rest of the central nervous system, Grey regains his physical capabilities…and more. Stem has a personality of its own and it wants to help Grey get revenge on the men who killed his wife.
Set in the near future, Whannell crafts a perfectly believable world that doesn’t feel impossibly advanced. Self-driving cars navigate the streets while voice-activated home systems describe the weather, what groceries need buying, and more. This is the world we already live in but Upgrade builds upon the products we see already see – Google’s automated cars and Amazon’s Alexa, for example – and shows us versions that are three to four iterations ahead of what we know. While undeniably advanced, it’s all familiar enough that this is not out of the realm of possibility. Well, all that except for guns that are embedded within the muscle and tissue of a person’s arms. That’s a bit of a stretch.
Tightly written, Whannell doesn’t sacrifice character development for our protagonist in exchange for action, although the film undoubtedly does move quickly. We spend enough time between Grey and Asha to feel that their love is genuine and pure, so when it’s stripped away we’re able to understand and empathize with the sorrow he feels. There’s a moment where Grey’s mother is bathing him, helping him vomit, and then neatening his beard. This moment proves too much for Grey, who begins weeping, his helplessness, and hopelessness, laid bare.
When Grey teams up with Stem, this is where the movie really gets exciting. Combining elements of RoboCop, Equilibrium, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix, the action is bone-jarring and Asha’s killers are dispatched in gruesome yet cheer-worthy displays of violence. While the film uses CGI to “futurize” the world, Whannell still elects to use practical FX as frequently as possible.
Marshall-Green is both hilarious and commanding as Grey while Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel plays the stern and focused detective in charge of Asha’s murder case. Hardie is charming and entertaining in his villainous role but where Upgrade has its failings is that it rushes through Grey’s revenge without giving us a chance to meet, so as to hate, the bad guys. In a way, it’s the opposite of The Crow. Whereas the Brandon Lee-led film dedicated screen time to Top Dollar and his goons, Upgrade barely brings us into the world of Asha’s killers. Even Grey has to confirm with one of the assailants that he was part of the murderous quartet.
Such breakneck speed makes for a film that is never dull and will always have viewers eager for the next big event but it comes at the cost of feeling true vindictive joy when the criminals meet their end. The explosion of viscera and gore is an appetizer for a full meal that never arrives at the table.
Upgrade is a pure adrenaline shot of sci-fi body horror thrills. Hopefully we’ll see a fresh and exciting new franchise from Whannell!