Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 2, 2018)
From the writer behind the Saw and Insidious franchises, 2018’s Upgrade goes for more of a science-fiction orientation. Set in an unspecified near future, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) resists the temptations of modern technology, as he prefers more “old school” devices.
After a vicious assault leaves Grey paralyzed and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) dead, he finds his possible salvation via innovations. He receives an implant called STEM that not only erases his paralysis but also enhances his physical and mental abilities, albeit with unforeseen ramifications.
As noted, Leigh Whannell made his bones as a screenwriter, but he veered toward directing with 2015’s Insidious Chapter 3. I wasn’t wild about the first two films in that series, but the third worked pretty well and left me optimistic Whannell could work some magic with Upgrade.
While I can’t claim Whannell makes a great film with Upgrade, he does create a fairly effective sci-fi effort. The movie mixes intrigue, technology and violence to become a reasonably involving flick.
Whannell does wear influences on his sleeve, as one can easily detect inspirations here. We get obvious dollops of 2001, Robocop, The Matrix and Blade Runner, just to name a few.
Despite these obvious forebears, Upgrade manages to feel like its own movie most of the time. The influences come across as semi-tangential elements but not material that gives the film a copycat impression.
Given Whannell’s horror roots, I would’ve expected something more heavy-handed than Upgrade, so its fairly subdued vibe comes as a pleasant surprise. Granted, I can’t call this a terribly cerebral effort, and it could delve into societal ramifications of technology better than it does.
Still, Upgrade avoids any kind of heavy-handed sensibility as well, and it eschews the kind of cheap thrills that we get from most modern horror. Whannell allows the tale to play out in a gradual manner and he doesn’t give in to temptations to follow cheap clichés.
On its own, I can’t claim Upgrade creates a great science-fiction thriller, but it brings us a pretty good one. It seems above average and just creative enough to succeed.