Upgrade is the sophomore feature from Aussie writer-director Leigh Whannell following 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3, the best sequel in a franchise of increasingly diminishing returns (the less said about the truly dreadful fourth chapter the better). But really, it’s the Saw co-creator’s first movie since, unlike its predecessor, this is an original idea from the man himself, rather than someone else’s story he’s stepping into.
Whannell actually wrote Upgrade immediately after the first Insidious movie, which was the brainchild of his buddy James Wan (who gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shout-out here). The flick was in development for six years, with various studios reluctant to touch it since the general assumption was that the story required a massive budget akin to what Wan likely worked with on his upcoming Aquaman movie.
The writer-director had to downsize considerably as a result, but it stands to him in a remarkable way, because this story of a disabled man who regains his life thanks to a computer chip wouldn’t be nearly as moving or captivating if it were bathed in smudgy CGI. Shot in Whannell’s hometown of Melbourne, Upgrade boasts a well-realised city-scape and tons of cool future tech, but is first and foremost a character-driven story about the futility of seeking revenge.
The Invitation‘s Logan Marshall Green is Grey, a happily married man grumpily existing in the not-so-distant future world so lovingly created by Whannell. He’s a cynic, a technophobe, a Luddite — the kind of guy who still drives a “classic” car rather than the swish self-driving vehicle favoured by his partner. It’s one of those very contraptions that leads to the couple getting involved in a deadly collision and subsequent hold-up, resulting in her death and his being paralysed.
Stuck in a wheelchair and no longer able to do anything for himself Grey is, by his own admission, “looking for the off switch” when he’s approached to try out a new computer chip called STEM that will give him the use of his limbs once more. The implant also speaks to Grey in a jaunty, HAL-esque voice and can control his body when and if he requires. Encouraged by STEM, Grey embarks on a bloody quest for revenge against those who took his wife from him.
Upgrade is an incredibly confident and assured second feature from Whannell, hitherto thought of as “the other one” next to Wan. He showed off his directorial flair in Chapter 3, sure, but here the Aussie is afforded the freedom to really fly and the material soars as a result. His film is sharp and funny, but emotionally engaging throughout, while the design of everything in his future world is cool, and very tactile, as was Whannell’s intention.
It’s evident he’s a horror guy from the quick spurts of all-out gore, but the action sequences — many of which play off Grey’s unfamiliarity with his new body — are well-choreographed and always easy to follow. Grey’s jittery, puppet-like movements given them an entirely different feel from the likes of John Wick, while his hilarious reactions to having unwittingly caused pain to others further afford such sequences a real-world tangibility.
Green is onscreen for practically the entire film and he takes to the incredibly physical role of Grey with aplomb. It’s a tough character, one who isn’t always easy to empathise with, but Green, finally gifted a leading role worthy of his demonstrable talent, devours the opportunity. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to an even grumpier Tom Hardy, he manages to look old beyond his years and like a frightened little bunny depending on the situation.
Upgrade is a proudly tech-savvy movie, having been researched to within an inch of its life by Whannell. Its many modern conveniences aren’t outlandish. It’s easy to imagine this as our reality in a decade or two, maybe even sooner. The film’s opening credits, including the names of the various production companies and its title itself, are cleverly introduced by a computer voice, making them the coolest since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. This, too, further solidifies its proudly techie outlook.
Elsewhere, a guy loads up his arm — a bit like Henry Cavill in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, only with actual bullets so it makes way more sense — and Betty Gabriel (continue to cast her in everything, please) has some fun with cool police gadgetry that, naturally, doesn’t assist her in staying on Grey’s tail whatsoever. STEM is a clever creation too, both as a catalyst for the events of the movie and as a devil on Grey’s shoulder.
It’s impossible to overstate just how much of a joy Upgrade is. Whannell marks himself out as a filmmaker to watch while telling an emotionally involving, and consistently entertaining, story in a world that’s well-realised, tactile, and frighteningly believable. Green gives the best performance of his career thus far. A dark ending fits the material perfectly, showcasing Whannell’s confidence in his own (terrific) idea.
Hollywood is surely calling, but on the strength of this movie, Whannell should stay put. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Leigh Whannell
Writer(s): Leigh Whannell
Stars: Logan Marshall Green, Betty Gabriel, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen
Release date: June 1, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Blumhouse
Length: 100 minutes
Sub-Genre: Action, Sci-Fi