UPGRADE. Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie. Directed by Leigh Whannell. 95 minutes. Not yet rated.
‘Upgrade’ plays like the pulpy offspring of ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’, steeping its observations about the human condition and our relationship to technology in an impressively realised futuristic setting, with a story that delivers plenty of thrills and twists. The winner of the Audience Award for “Midnight” films at the SXSW Film Awards, the delight it takes in its gruesome, balletic violence may preclude it from some viewers, but it marks its Australian writer/director Leigh Whannell as an ambitious talent to watch.
In a not-too-distant future, mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) decries the bionic enhancements that many people regularly undergo. He’s always preferred working with his own two hands, repairing classic cars to sell to wealthy clients. However, when a random assault leads to his wife’s death and leaves him a quadriplegic, Grey must rely on the technology he has resisted for so long to exact his revenge.
When a wealthy former client, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson, creepy), tells him about a top secret, revolutionary technology that could free him from his wheelchair, Grey relents. A computer chip, called STEM, is inserted in his neck to bridge the lesion in his spinal cord. The results are immediate and wildly promising – Grey can move and function perfectly, although the covert nature of the STEM project means that he cannot publicise his miraculous recovery.
As the police investigation into his wife’s death dries up, Grey uses his newfound freedom to take matters into his own hands. When Grey hears STEM’s voice (Simon Maiden, excellent in a limited role) in his head, any initial shock turns into excitement as STEM points out a hidden clue in the police dossier on the murder. Now with a fresh lead on the men responsible, Grey’s hunt begins in earnest.
The greatest innovation that ‘Upgrade’ offers arrives during its handful of impressive action scenes. With STEM able to control his body, Grey is now capable of impossible moves when engaged in combat. Working with cinematographer Stefan Duscio, Whannell captures these with a unique visual approach, locking Grey’s body in part of the frame while the rest of the setting moves rapidly around his stationary form. While the bone-crunching hits and punishing choreography would be striking on their own merit, Marshall-Green’s performance takes the action to another level. STEM in the driver’s seat, Grey is a passenger in his own body, watching on in horrified amazement as his own hands take apart his robotically enhanced enemies. There’s a dark humour marbled through Marshall-Green’s shocked reactions to his new physical capabilities, as he tries to warn his foes that their continued attacks will not end well. Balancing his heavily stylised routines with an incongruous facial performance is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Marshall-Green manages it flawlessly, adding to his already nuanced portrayal of a trauma survivor.
There’s more traditional humour to be mined from Whannell’s screenplay, from the dialogue between Grey and STEM (imagine a dysfunctional buddy film in which both buddies share a single body) to the playful conversations between Grey and Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the detective on his wife’s case who starts to follow the trail of bodies that Grey and STEM leave in their wake. Their game of cat and mouse takes on a hardboiled genre inflection, amplified by the veiled threat of Eron, who doesn’t take kindly to Grey endangering his cutting-edge technology with his vigilantism.
The craft on display is excellent and belies the film’s limited budget. Its futuristic and sleek yet functional design, particularly evident in its vehicles and ubiquitous hovering drones, evokes ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (no small feat), a comparison that could also be favourably extended to Jed Palmer’s throbbing electronic score. While its story borrows liberally from other technophobic tales (the theme of ‘man vs. machine’ is hardly new), there’s an admirable efficiency to its narrative that sets it apart; it’s a lean thriller that allows its thrills to do the talking.
Whannell came to prominence thanks to his partnership with horror director James Wan (the duo created the gory ‘Saw’ franchise in 2004). While Wan has since moved on to mega-budget studio films like ‘Furious 7’ and the upcoming ‘Aquaman’, Whannell has remained more closely tied to genre fare, continuing to write the ‘Insidious’ franchise among other things. With ‘Upgrade’, Whannell moves boldly out from Wan’s shadow, firmly staking his claim as a writer-director to watch. If he continues to upgrade his already considerable skills, his future output will shine brightly indeed.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out June 14.