Film review: ‘UPGRADE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The idea of human bodies being enhanced with technology has been a frequent sci-fi theme for decades with Robocop and The Six Million Dollar Man just two examples. Aussie writer director Leigh Whannell explores this theme in the futuristic action flick Upgrade but ads a sniff of the violent horror for which he became renowned with the disgusting Saw franchise.

Upgrade is set in a dystopian, near-future America (but very obviously filmed in Melbourne) filled with self-driving cars, ever-present police drones and 3d printed food. In this world, old school technophobe auto-mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) increasingly feels alienated preferring a more hands-on approach to life. When criminals kill his wife and leave him a quadriplegic, Grey is offered a new life through a secret revolutionary chip implant that not only restores regular movement but gives him near-superhuman speed and strength. Equipped with these abilities, Grey launches into a search for his wife’s murderers a quest that will have consequences beyond anything he could have imagined.

Upgrade boasts inventive use of technological ideas, reasonably tight scripting and dynamic action. Still, as Grey tracks the killers, Upgrade at times threatens to transform into Death Wish-style revenge porn complete with over-the-top gore. Fortunately, Whannell diverts from this path often enough to at least touch on more interesting sci-fi concerns such as the dangers of technology combined with hubris and the existential crisis of humanity being submerged within a cyber world. Like the 1990’s video store beer and pizza movie that it often resembles, Upgrade doesn’t explore these issues in enough depth but it’s a brave attempt.

The film falls down in a couple of areas. It has that slightly cheap and shonky look typical of movies shot in familiar Melbourne locations masquerading as an American city. Also, performances aren’t particularly convincing or compelling. Marshall Logan-Green (who is oddly reminiscent of Gerard Butler) isn’t a very interesting or sympathetic as Grey so his experiences don’t have the emotional impact they should have had. Betty Gabriel (Get Out, Westworld) delivers a reasonably strong performance in a standard investigating cop role while others such as Harrison Gilbertson as creepy young tech wiz and Leo di Caprio lookalike Eron Keen and Benedict Hardie as his chief assassin Fisk, are a little hammy. One of the more compelling characters is the voice of the upgrade computer chip named STEM which has a sinister quality reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Like much of Whannell’s previous horror output, Upgrade is in many aspects flawed but still clever and often unsettling.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Sci Fi/ Action.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Leigh Whannell.

Release date: 14th June 2018.

Running time: 95 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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