Upgrade Review | State of the Art Ninja


While Upgrade came out in 2018, Great White & Co was not around at the time for us to review Leigh Whannell's science fiction flick. However, with news of an Upgrade TV series being developed to pick up the story a few years after the movie, I thought now was a better time than ever to talk about this unexpected gem from Blumhouse Pictures. A studio that seems to have one home run for every strikeout, one Get Out or Split for every Blumhouse's Truth or Dare or Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. BH Tilt, a micro-distribution label under Blumhouse and in partnership with indie label Neon, bears a similar history having put out movies such as The Belko Experiment and The Darkness. But whatever your opinion is about the studio and its consistency, they certainly take risks and give voices to smaller filmmakers. The problem occurs when the films actually come out, and it becomes a toss-up for how they are.

Upgrade is directed by Leigh Whannell and tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a car mechanic, who ends up getting into a freak car accident that ends with his wife, Asha Trace (Melanie Vallejo), dying and him being rendered a quadriplegic. However, one of his former clients, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), offers Grey the chance to walk again (and perhaps maybe even more), if he goes through with an operation that gives him a prototype STEM implant. A chip that bridges that gap between his mind and body so that he can function normally once more. But with great power, comes great responsibility, and Grey soon finds himself on the path for revenge guided by the futuristic voice in his head.

The first thing that really stands out in Upgrade is its futuristic take on the world. We've seen plenty of science-fiction films tackle a near-future setting, but Upgrade is undoubtedly one of the most grounded. There are super sleek cars that drive themselves while you sit back and attend a phone call (which I'm sure Tesla has already created designs for at this point) but the roads are not devoid of the millions of Hondas and Hyundais that are already on the market. And sure, cities have been upgraded with modern architecture and technology but the city outskirts don't change at the same rate and new tech in these parts is seen in the forms of illegal modifications people do to their own bodies. The world, accompanied by the eerie and dark soundtrack, set the stage for the madness that unfolds in the movie perfectly.

On a surface level, Upgrade's story is nothing special. In fact, it comes off as pretty unoriginal. However, the deeper you get into the story, the more there is to enjoy. I'll refrain from going into details about the said story and simply say that it definitely takes a few unexpected turns. This is very much due to the writing, which isn't well rounded, but great where it needs to be. Grey Trace is a fully developed character and the world he lives in feels practical. The same cannot be said for all the side characters, but, luckily, Grey takes up most of the screen time and the craziness that unfolds in almost every scene distracts from the underdeveloped "villain" or lackluster detective that's always one step behind the hero. This may sound bad, but where Upgrade really shines is as a sum of its parts.


Let's talk about acting. Most of the cast is great at selling what they're given in the scripts, but none as effectively as Logan Marshall-Green. Being the character that has the most development, Logan Marshall-Green is given a lot to work with and he handles the part nicely. The small, more personal, scenes are good but where he really shines are the brilliant action scenes where STEM takes over his body and turns him into a superhuman. His body moves with the agility of a fighter but his face expresses shock at what's he's doing. This adds a lot of surprisingly comedic touches to the otherwise gory action scenes. This isn't to take credit away from any of the other cast members, but being the main character, Marshall-Green as Grey really does steal the show.

When it comes to camera work the film is rather unconventional. It takes some risks and they mostly work in the movie's favor. In the opening shot the film sets up a very clear style and sticks with it throughout. The shots are framed meticulously and are accompanied by strong accented colors that make the film look stunning. The action scenes where the camera syncs and stabilizes on Grey's movement and the car chase towards the end of the film are definitely the highlights. Upgrade has it's a fair share of clear inspirations (Terminator being an easy one to spot), but the movie has the ability to stand on its own two legs and not feel contrived. Due to the nature of its low budget origins, very little in Upgrade feels unnecessary and everything that unfolds in its runtime serves a purpose. This makes for a lean film that has nothing to hide.

Now a brief *SPOILER ALERT* for this paragraph because I have a few things to say about the ending. So please do watch the movie before reading further. Upgrade is not a long film, clocking in at an hour and thirty-five minutes, and as it started to come to an end I really wondered how they were going to do it. There were several ideas I had in my mind but none that I felt would be original enough to match the uniqueness of the rest of the movie. Then Grey puts the gun to his head and BAM!, wake up in a hospital. It was all a dream. The whole thing never happened. His wife never died, he wasn't a quadriplegic and everything is back to normal. But we cut back to reality and realize that STEM had simply changed Grey's reality to one that he wanted to be true. His mind was so weak that when it snapped, STEM could take over. As the track, A Better Place, kicked into high gear, I started to realize what had happened and I could not help but smile. The ending is not only something I did not expect, but it was also fitting to the rest of the madness the filmmakers had created. The film could have ended, more or less, on the note that STEM was, in fact, the evil mastermind, but choosing to end on Grey being essentially a prisoner to his own subconscious is a unique take that I have to applaud in execution.

In the end, Upgrade was definitely a shot in the dark for Blumhouse, but it pays off massively. I'm not saying it's a perfect movie, and it certainly doesn't land all that it tries to execute, but, with that said, during a time when audiences are screaming for an original movie that's not a reboot, remake or sequel, Upgrade is a breath of fresh air. It's unique, unapologetic and knows exactly what it wants to be. If you want to see more original films in theaters, then support the ones that take risks to show Hollywood they're worth making.

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