Smart Tech On The Brain
Written by Tamsin Cleary
Upgrade manages to be simultaneously forward looking and backward looking – a throwback to the mid-budget, high-concept sci-fi/action flicks of the 1980s and a comment on very contemporary anxieties about the growing omnipresence of ‘smart’ technology in our day-to-day lives. Both lines of inquiry are promising but they also make for strange bedfellows – it is a film that, like its hero, ultimately suffers from an identity crisis. Said hero is the fantastically named Grey Trace (played with workmanlike competency by Logan Marshall-Green), an old-school grease monkey in a world of slick self-driving cars. After a seemingly freak car crash leaves him a quadriplegic, and hired guns kill his wife, socially inept billionaire Eron (see what they’ve done there?) offers him an experimental procedure to get him back on his feet. A chip called STEM – a smooth-voiced AI somewhere between HAL-9000 and KIT from Knight Rider – is installed in Grey’s neck, restoring his mobility. But STEM also turns out to be a capable and willing detective, and the pair team up to track down the men who wronged Grey.
Horrormeister Leigh Whannell’s first foray into science fiction is a strange brew, one primarily concocted from familiar genre trappings and tropes. There are particularly strong notes of Robocop throughout the proceedings, along with Videodrome, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Terminator and even Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (referenced in the film’s auditory opening titles). But perhaps Whannell should’ve borrowed even more from Paul Verhoeven’s seminal cyborg satire and leavened his film’s outlandish conceit with a dash of self-reflexive humour. Upgrade’s tone, especially in its first and third acts, can tend towards a slightly overbearing bleakness, which jars somewhat with the sheer pulpiness of its premise. There is, however, a delicious vein of black comedy running through the film’s action set-pieces, with AI-assisted fights that recall the latent slapstick of Jackie Chan and Evil Dead 2.
The film is at its best when it embraces its true calling, a good old-fashioned down-and-dirty actioner, one that gleefully indulges us in the illicit pleasures of junk-food cinema. Upgrade is a film where bionic henchmen reload their arm-guns by flexing, and it’s a great deal of fun when Whannell is delivering that kind of wilfully boneheaded image with style, confidence and craft. His attempts at cultural commentary often fall flat in comparison, although some of the questions his screenplay raises about autonomy and automation are intriguing, if a little under-developed. The film’s emotional through-line is also a mixed bag. Some moments, such as a pre-upgrade Grey’s botched suicide attempt, are charged with genuine pathos, whereas other key scenes land with a thud. The story’s resolution resides firmly in the former category though, ending the film on a chilling yet affecting note, worthy of Rod Serling. When Upgrade is good it’s hard to resist but, ironically, it’s not a film that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Available to watch on Netflix from 7th August.
Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, and Harrison Gilbertson
Running Time: 100 mins