It is perhaps impishly fitting for a film as decidedly old-fashioned, yet blackly comic as Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade to begin with an opening credits sequence that bridges the gap between sci-fi coolness and discomfort with innovation – or at least, innovation that’ll raise an eyebrow. Having the opening credits spoken to the audience via a Siri-esque virtual assistant and visible sonic wavelengths rather than silently spelled out through title cards is perhaps more head-turning than awe-inducing, but on a metaphorical level, maybe Whannell was aligning our superficial uneasiness with this sort of technological subversion with Logan Marshall-Green’s Grey’s own preference for relatively antiquated comforts, particularly muscle cars and blues music.
When the film reveals the disconnect between these pleasures and the increasingly tech-reliant near future Grey and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), occupy, we sympathize with his anxiety and distrust of the convenience-based machinery pervading their lives. But in spite of that necessary connection between audience and protagonist, however, it’s easy buying into Whannell’s ultimately cynical view of technological singularity, in particular, because of the basic truth that all technology will at some point either malfunction or break down. Here, for the sake of narrative drama and momentum, they all happen to have horrific consequences to go with their cutting-edge abilities.
Fortunately, unlike the infrequently reliable tech meant to render life a smooth breeze, Upgrade may occasionally sputter, but it gets us to our desired point of satisfaction with near-high grade efficiency. Rather seamlessly, it brings together two disparate stylistic and contextual disconnects for an effective body horror meets revenge action romp. Not only does it, again for Blumhouse, upend the false discrepancy between a low production budget and high technical cinematic achievement, but also brings together an unmistakably vintage ‘80s sci-fi vibe with modern action thriller sensibilities for an intermittently stylish, regularly glorious throwback.
Featuring the revenge thriller tenacity of ilk like the Death Wish saga blended with the recognizable, yet subtly terrifying future vision as a film like RoboCop, Upgrade justifies its existence with sweetly gory überviolence; the kind once only thought possible in the realms of cult foreign flicks or direct to home entertainment fare. Nicely interspersed throughout the narrative so as not to remove focus from the story or its leaning hard into a body horror aesthetic, the set pieces come equipped with slick camera movement and choreography, geysers of blood and genuinely disarming humor laced into its darkness. Thankfully, this twisted havoc doesn’t come at the expense of whatever brooding pessimism hovers over and defines the material – just a little spice for those who prefer milder flavors.
Admittedly, said glass-half-empty mentality can come across as the crutch Whannell’s devilish humor couldn’t be, especially in the closing stages, but it’s an aura we internalize enough to accept as part of the territory, even if we don’t completely see eye to eye with the director’s apparent technophobia. And at the very least, the film is more reliant upon creating a palpable atmosphere underlining its thrills than it is the storytelling conveniences introduced by the wide range of scarily capable tech and other sources of deus ex machinas aiming to keep the runtime under three digits.
Perhaps such ties into a seeming biological need, for lack of a better phrase, to keep the story’s events moving, fearing that slowing down will cost the film its overall impact. Upgrade contains its fair share of slower moments, particularly a methodical first act/third quickly forgiven once all of the pieces are put into place for a madcap succeeding hour, and at times the pacing feels a bit rough transitioning from dizzying action sequences to necessary bits of plot development and character interplay between Grey and STEM, the latter voiced by Simon Maiden. These down moments, however, aren’t without value, probing the limits of genre storytelling conventions, but also expanding upon interesting ideas related not only to body horror and the dangers of lusting for power.
It transcends the usual ‘man playing God’ critique to examine more intimately – in whatever 95 minutes will allow – the psychological needs behind both creation and possession of strength, whatever that may entail. The latter we see expertly expressed through Marshall-Green’s odd, yet surprising and captivating physical performance that damn near makes the film a one-man show. It isn’t just his affable everyman turned sudden fish out of water charisma that amplifies his presence and makes us fear for his fallibility to such an overpowering parasite-shaped mechanism, but also his movements evenly coalesce familiar human mannerisms with calculated motions, always throwing us off the scent as to whether or not he or STEM has control.
All of these things culminate in a bitingly cynical ending that not only has the brazen balls to end the story on a desperately low note in keeping with Whannell’s ruminations on technology, but also the gall to patently reject serialization despite having such a low price tag to both clear and justify future additions. In the modern age’s franchise landscape, it steps up to its limited podium – only 1,457 screens are currently housing the film – and steadfastly declares itself a complete story; a bitter, pitch black and utterly hopeless story that remains convinced the enjoyment you felt wasn’t immediately for naught upon its closure. Maybe it’s even because of its wacko entertainment value that such a denouement is earned, at all.
There is a ‘little engine that could’ vibe projected from films such as these that’s infectious, and that also does its part in maintaining the allure of Upgrade’s vicious, yet vivacious application of stick-to-your-ribs genre delight, in spite of how its ending gets your jaw to drop. Despite each one’s low quantitative investment, not every Blumhouse production can claim it emanates such a feeling. Though to be frank, not every Blumhouse film is one worth rooting for (see: Truth or Dare); this one is.