BH Tilt presents its latest science-fiction thriller, Upgrade, from the mind of writer/director Leigh Whannell (Saw). His story, delving into the dark and gritty nuances of superhero movies, has revenge on its mind. But it is so much more, and whatever you might anticipate barely scratches the surface.
The film starts with credits read to the audience by a digital voice as opposed to scrolling the screen. An unwieldy one, the tactic clashes with the tone Whannell tries to establish, adding nothing except an odd moment. All I can think is somebody watched Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 during pre-production not realizing opening “credits” were among its flaws.
We’re introduced to our tragic hero Grey Trace, a gearhead in a future world who has a loving wife (Melanie Vallejo, a former Power Ranger) and a thing for vintage muscle cars. Grey has a perfect life, but then some cybernetically augmented thugs paralyze him and murder his wife right in front of him.
Three months later, dejected and suicidal, Grey gets a new lease on life from a former buyer of his cars: tech prodigy and reclusive entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). Eron is a quirky and eccentric type; if he was any colder or robotic he’d be a Replicant. He is also such a genius he can make his own rain clouds indoors (so get on his level).
Since he is harboring that kind of prowess, it’s no surprise Keen invented a state-of-the-art AI that he implants in Grey’s neck to make him walk again. Of course, the implant, named STEM, doesn’t stop there. It can talk (voiced by Simon Maiden) and facilitates Grey’s quest for retribution by enhancing his strength and reflexes, and aiding him in detective work and combat.
Grey Trace is portrayed by Logan Marshall-Green (Devil, Prometheus, Spider-Man Homecoming) and the role is a a lead for him — one with a substantial arc to boot. That Green has a look like Tom Hardy, a voice similar to Joel Kinnaman, and the right resume makes him a logical choice for the part. But, lacking their presence and name value, he grows into the role and he sells us on himself in a way before the action kicks in.
And the action and exposition coexist in a fine balance that’s built deliberately and leaves room to breathe. Act one encompasses Grey’s everyday life of cars and wedded bliss and then his grief and adjustment over the tragic incident. Then in Act Two, he goes on his crusade.
Whannell also wisely underplays his hand when it comes to FX, which is a mix of practical and digital. He throws in moments of gore but waits to foist them upon us. Each of Grey’s fights when he tracks down his assailants ends in bloody fashion — especially the first one. All are second and third act kills that only happen once the film takes a turn.
As a lead up, there is a scene where Grey undergoes the procedure to implant STEM. There is something about surgeries in a movie, and on the big screen in particular. They are always slow and contain low-key music or narration, and every bit of tissue and sinew is sliced and diced like they want so badly for the audience to wince.
But again, these moments are spare and spread out and so are the glimpses of the world these characters live in. Clearly set somewhere in the far-flung future, everything is automated and computers are highly intelligent. Environments are sterile, for those that aren’t disaffected hackers playing VR games in the slums, and sometimes synthetic.
Regardless, Whannell crafts a very grounded narrative. Sort of like Timecop, cars and homes look advanced and people have all kinds of outlandish enhancements but developments are so matter-of-fact that even moviegoers will take them for granted.
At the same time, allusions to Terminator and Blade Runner will be obvious to sci-fi fans. Machines are dangerous and poised to take over. Fight scenes have a higher framerate and are filmed by a camera on a special rig to indicate people are in full T-101 mode.
Upgrade has the vibe of a Crow film, or Robocop, meeting the likes of an obscure indie such as Hardware. Also possessing traces of the creepier aspects of 2001, it doesn’t pull back once Hell is unleashed when Man and Machine meld. Much like I Kill Giants earlier in the year, Upgrade is something to dial in and see.