Upgrade and all the images you see in this review are owned by OTL Releasing and BH Tilt
Directed by Leigh Whannell
Well if it isn’t my good friend Blumhouse Tilt! How’ve you been, buddy!? Sure, you’ve released two of the WORST movies I’ve seen in the past few years, but let’s let bygones be bygones; especially now that you’re teaming up with Neon who’ve made one of the BEST movies I’ve seen in the past few years! Your newest movie is certainly getting a lot of buzz recently with great word of mouth and a kick ass trailer, so maybe there’s some hope for you yet, as long as you don’t work with Eli Roth ever again! Can Blumhouse’s latest film turn out to be an under the radar smash hit from a studio that’s VERY hit and miss? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the sad tale of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who’s living his average Cyberpunk protagonist life in a slightly cyberpunk future with his soon to be a cliché wife Asha (Melanie Vellejo) and everything is going about as well as you could expect for the first ten minutes of one of these movies! Grey fixes up old cars for rich people, Asha works at a cyber prosthetic company, and they couldn’t be happier if they tried! That is until their automatic car goes haywire, drops them off on the wrong side of the tracks, and they’re immediately assaulted by a few punks who kill her off (wow, what a surprise…) and leave poor Grey for dead! He somehow manages to survive however, though not without losing the use of his arms and legs, and he’s ready to give up on life when one of his wealthy customers Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) offers him a chance to test a medical miracle called STEM which is basically a small computer they insert into the spine that still hasn’t gone through OFFICIAL testing, but will surely give him back the use of his limbs along with a few other bells and whistles. After some initial hesitance (Grey isn’t one for all this new-fangled technology stuff), he agrees to do it and sure enough starts walking again almost immediately. Slight side effect though, there’s an AI inside the chip starts talking to him and STEM (Simon Maiden) seems more than eager to help Grey find the men who killed his wife and bring them to some sort of justice. Well Grey is certainly up for that, especially since the cop on the case (Betty Gabriel) hasn’t turned up many leads, but they have to be careful because not only does Grey need to keep the rest of the world from knowing he can walk again (he even signs a NDA about the procedure), he also has to keep his activities hidden from Eron who’s more than likely following his every move and wouldn’t be too pleased if his next step in medical science was used to rip people’s hearts out. Will Grey and STEM find the people who killed his wife and get him that sweet sweet vengeance he so desperately craves? What other side effects besides hearing voices and kicking extra amounts of ass will Grey have to deal with now that he’s got STEM sharing brain space with him? I mean, it’s not THAT bad, right? Who WOULDN’T want your operation system constantly reminding you to install critical updates right into your auditory cortex!?
I get the feeling that I’m gonna be a lot colder on this film that the vast majority of my fellow film critics, but that’s not to say this isn’t still a REALLY good film. I GET why this one is probably gonna hit home with a lot of people because there is some genuine wit and intelligence behind this, and I certainly can see it better here than in other films like A Quiet Place or The Phantom Thread. It’s just… the ending. I kinda turned on this right at the end where we get to the big twist and the final fate of our characters; none of which really endeared me to this a whole lot and took away just how much I was really enjoying this film up to that point. To be clear I REALLY enjoyed the film up that point as its one of the better executed small budgeted sci-fi films we’ve gotten in a while, and even when it isn’t quite firing on all cylinders it manages to stay engaging and find ways to surprise you. The ending counts for a lot though and this movie REALLY needed that to work considering how much of its plot is kept at arm’s length until that point, but then I’m just a Grumpy Gus who doesn’t like anything if it doesn’t star Melissa McCarthy or ends with everyone sharing one big hug. Also, it has maybe the worst tagline imaginable. “Not man. Not machine. More.” REALLY!? What, did “More than Man. More than Machine. More than you could possibly imagine.” just COMPLETELY slip you by!?
On a technical level, this is quite an accomplishment for the budget that it has which is around a mere five million dollars; setting up a sci-fi world that’s believable mostly through smoke and mirrors and a very judicious use of its special effects. Robotic arms aren’t that hard to make yet pretending they’re reacting to the commands of the characters on screen rather than being controlled by someone with a controller is brilliant in its simplicity; something this movie does over and over again with total confidence and aplomb. Similarly, Grey has no outwardly visible signs of his enhancements but it’s still convincing because of how they use STEM’s dialogue coupled with Logan Marshall-Green’s performance to constantly remind you of it. Heck, something as simple as a SINGLE camera trick makes this one of the more dynamic non-CGI heavy action films we’ve gotten in a while as they are constantly rotating the camera to tilt the image which makes for some really interesting shots and feels like the best possible version of SHAKY CAM imaginable. Sure, it doesn’t have the flashy eye candy of a Star Wars film, the breathtakingly hostile and alien look of Blade Runner 2049, or even the go for broke garish aesthetic of those FMV games like Ripper and Privateer 2, but it does a heck of a lot with what little it has to work with and it really renewed my excitement about what can be done with film making and what’s within reach to even the smallest of productions.
The story as well is rather solid if a bit a juggling act as THE MYSTERY as it were doesn’t really pace itself out as well as it should even if really interesting stuff is happening almost constantly. The technologically itself, laughably farcical as it is (let’s shove this microchip up a guy’s neck and call it a day!), does a serviceable job of selling the premise and STEM is a classic rouge AI in the vein of HAL 9000 that you are always on edge of just how much longer Grey will be able to handle the situation. It may have been Grey’s body originally, but he’s now copiloting with someone else, and the tension between those two is palpable; STEM being the perfect ally for Grey’s vengeance quest until things start to get too real and bloody. That alone would have sold the movie and made it a genuinely great experience, but they overcomplicate things with a conspiracy that makes absolutely no sense and is just kind of silly once everyone’s cards are on the table. It actually reminded me a bit of Blade Runner 2049 where there was a whole revolution thing going on in the background that we just never heard about, and we get a similar issue here where there are several plot points thrust upon us without much fanfare or exploration. There’s one dude who’s on a whole AUGMENTED HUMANS ARE BETTER kick, but we never see how the rest of the world feels about it or even if these kinds of advancements are widespread enough to be an issue. Heck, they throw in the idea of people addicted to VR, but it only serves as background decoration for a single chase scene; not to mention a hacker character who is built up to have an important role in the story, but completely disappears after their one scene. I guess I should really be judging this on more of a curve considering how much they DID do with the limitations they had, but if you shoot for the moon and miss your mark, that’s something worth talking about. This movie didn’t need to be as complex as it is because the central conceit of a badass dude with an AI buddy in his brain would be enough to sell basically any kind of story and I just wish they had picked ONE to tell instead of this uneven mishmash of cyberpunk tropes.
Sadly, this film also stumbles quite a bit in one place that frankly have nothing to do with their high concept story or modest budget; rather the issue is one that ANYBODY making films nowadays should at least be SOMEWHAT conscious of and sensitive to. Seriously, we are only two years out from the shit show that was Me Before You, yet we’re STILL portraying disability in the most awful light possible? Look, I get that we need to show Grey’s despair in order to give him motivation for his eventual quest for vengeance, and we need something that will give him a reason to undergo this absurd surgery and therefore get bad ass robot powers, but to watch a dude become a quadriplegic and then try to kill himself… yeah, that’s pretty fucked up and is exactly the kind of thing we see way too often when depicting people with disabilities. Our protagonist doesn’t have to be happy about being in a wheelchair, but the movie doesn’t give a voice to the other side of that coin; namely someone who has a disability but isn’t considered lesser by the movie for it. Think back to The Punisher series on Netflix where a huge chunk of the season was about desperate vets who are pushed to the brink of despair and become monsters because of it. Frank, Billy, Lewis, all people who haunted by their pasts, suffering from PTSD, and do awful things which COULD be a rather negative view of the condition if the show didn’t take painstaking steps to show that their way is not the only one; more or less embodied by Curtis who still struggles but channels it in a positive direction with the support group. Without a similar voice of reason in this movie, it’s hard to separate the misery of Grey from his disability that is shared by many people out there who I’m guess are PRETTY tired of their existence being shown in such a negative context. It also doesn’t help that they do a gag about him getting up out of his wheelchair because you know, people who NEED those while still being able to stand, walk, and even run to a degree, want even MORE jokes about how they’re “faking” it.
We’ve been getting a lot of fantasy sci-fi in the last few months with at least two Marvel films and Two Star Wars films that everyone and dog has seen, so if you’re in the mood for something a little darker, grittier, and A LOT smaller, then this is certainly gonna fit the bill and I’d absolutely recommend checking this out if you’ve got the chance. It’s far from perfect though and a lot of its issues could have been fixed with another pass at the script from someone who wasn’t so madly in love with the material as the filmmakers clearly were here. An outside perspective would have probably given this the kind of perspective it needs to be a truly great film, but as it stands it’s a REALLY good niche film that plays well to the audiences that are looking for a badass sci-fi action film but probably won’t do much for everyone else. If you are a fan though, then you’re in luck because Blumhouse is not one to let a franchise go quietly into that good night, so expect Upgrade 2: Do Androids Dream of Electric Boogaloo in like nine months! Hell, they’re making a sequel to that Facebook horror flick, so anything is possible!!