Film Review: Aussie sci-fi "Upgrade" delivers good old-fashioned thrills
For all of Upgrade's contemporary concerns about a society where our dependency on machines stunts our humanity, there's a wonderful throwback vibe to the whole thing. Its "avenging my angelic dead wife" emotional core is ripped from the 70s; the alien androgyny of the tech gurus and hackers who bamboozle our simple-minded protagonist recalls the 90s; and the unseemly, borderline exploitative gaze with which it views the fragility of human meat wouldn't be out of place in an early-2000s torture porn film.
You might say that Upgrade has no pretensions about pushing the sci-fi genre forward. Thank god for that, because Upgrade is dated, the emotional beats barely register (Logan Marshall-Green and Melanie Vallejo have the chemistry of a dead rat), and writer/director Leigh Whannell's world-building is so haphazard that he barely convinces us that anything exists beyond the margins of the frame. And yet it totally succeeds as a pulpy little thriller with a few tricks up its sleeve.
Admittedly it takes a little patience to get to the good stuff. The first half-hour is standard fare as it gracelessly hobbles along the well-trodden path. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mechanic who loves tinkering with old cars, while his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works for a company that manufactures cutting-edge technology. Trace is an analog watch in a digital age, she pokes fun at him because of that, opposites attract I guess, and yada yada yada aren't they so cute etc.. He can barely conceal his contempt when his wife introduces him to a new client/genius inventor, Eron Vessel (Harrison Gilbertson, channeling Dane DeHaan at his slimiest). Vessel has invented a nifty little computer chip called STEM, which, in his own words, can "literally do anything".
On their way from Vessel's home, Trace and his wife are attacked by a gang of cyborg thugs. Asha is murdered and Trace is left paralysed. Vessel offers Trace a chance to walk again through the implantation of his STEM chip. Not only does the STEM chip allow Trace to walk again, it enhances his body to superhuman levels. Naturally, revenge is on the table.
When the implanted STEM chip is activated, Upgrade morphs into something worthwhile. STEM, aside from enhancing the human body, also has agency and functions as a voice inside Trace's mind. It's voiced with the exact sinister cadence of its cinematic sister, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's hardly original, and it doesn't take a keen Sherlock-like detection to guess where it's all going.
But damn all that because when Trace gives permission for STEM to take over his body and lay some robot ninja smackdown on his greasy tormentors, Upgrade goes from awake to gleefully nuts in the span of a second. The extremely well-choreographed fight scenes are not only exhilarating, but illustrate a darkly comic divide between Trace's fearful disbelief and STEM's lethal competence. For a while, Upgrade is like a deranged buddy cop movie as Trace navigates a conspiracy and evades capture from the authorities.
Whannell doesn't have much new to say about the integration of the warm softness of flesh and the cold hardness of technology. It isn't a fascinating treatise on the human condition a la Ex Machina or Her, not by a long shot. However, the filmmaker has a knack for meticulously plotting old school genre thrills and cleanly staging brutal fight scenes. Clocking in at an extremely brisk 95 minutes and with thrills to spare, Upgrade is some diverting if unexceptional entertainment. I mean, consider this alone: a 95-minute sci-fi action movie. Upgrade does indeed hail from a simpler time.