The implant is no Audemars Piguet, but hey, it still elevates the wearer!
What a toothsome phrase, “what if.” Powerful, too, especially in the sci-fi genre, as any mishandling or undertreating will set a future-set film on a surefire path to let its viewers down. In writer Leigh Whannell’s second time as director after the adequate third (but first) Insidious, the “what if” prefaces the scenario “it’s the tech that makes the man,” and at 95 minutes, which isn’t that hefty for a dissertation of the cinematic variant, Upgrade will never irk those experiencing it. Maybe they’ll even cheer a couple of times. That said, the film does ask its viewers to do three difficult things: to forcibly adopt a gorehound within, to never stop for a breather and to adore formula.
The year is 2040, yet being a Luddite is more the lifestyle that at-home car restorer Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) prefers. One night, Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are mugged by thugs whom he believes to have hacked and flipped their autopiloting sedan. They afterward fatally shoot Asha with a hand gun [not a typo, swear!] and incapacitate Grey. Upon hearing the news — Asha is a respectable figure at her firm — Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), an uber-moneyed tech prodigy/what-happens-when-Bieber-is-spliced-with-Walter, offers to help Grey, literally, get back on his feet by attaching a SD card-sized A.I. onto his spine. Kimoyo Beads what?
And here is where “the tech makes the man” aspect kicks in: Stem, as the A.I. is called (voiced by Simon Maiden), rapidly turns Grey from hopeless widower to badass avenger. It’s a powerful kind of transformation that calls for an equally so moment, something that one wishes had happened. Upgrade, under Andy Canny’s editing, has no time for fluff, but the flip-side of such briskness is a reveal of the storyteller’s (who is also Whannell) impatience, as well as his favoring of what (sometimes literally) bloody coolness Stem will perform next over everything else. “I’ve never seen a jaw do that before,” Grey said in a scene that has the toes of everybody in the auditorium curl up nicely. The futuristic setting, world-building work (we know of two competing tech giants through a single mention — possible sequel?) and other characters — along with those mentioned there’s also Det. Cortez (Betty Gabriel) who’s assigned to get out (winks) and solve Asha’s murder — are hazy creations (and thus becoming textbook plot push-alongs), as a result.
But Upgrade arrives prepared with all sorts of backups to recover from any bout of disinterest stemming from the hastiness. There’s the refreshingly vivid color scheme, humor that is effective in dark, silly or dark-and-silly hues (“I can do it for you, you don’t even have to look,” Stem said to Grey before operating on a thug’s face) and, especially, Stefan Duscio’s lensing. The camera also has an act of its own here: Should Grey be tired it will perpetually and funkily try to “reset” itself upright (thanks post-process stabilization), and in times of hand-to-hand combat it will pivot and twirl like JT’s microphone during Suit & Tie at SB LII. Quite the next-best solution when the writing can’t connect viewers to the characters. It’s also a neat approach that honors the highlighted part in the tagline, too (“More.”).
However, the true highlight here is one of flesh-and-blood: Marshall-Green. The Devil and The Invitation star displays Grey’s uneasy alliance with Stem with such aplomb that we will support the character wherever he goes — wacky town or solemn place, around telegraphed roads toward an expected destination. To still enchant us on an overly well-worn journey (though notably with a more heightened sense for bad guys’ blood) takes skills, so let’s drop that “poor man’s Tom Hardy” line for good, shall we?
Even better, after doing that think about the “what if” case of making Logan Marshall-Green a thing. He absolutely deserves it, and to sing a different tune means it’s time to refresh your playlist.