Studio: BH Tilt
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Producer: Jason Blum, Kylie Du Fresne, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Benedict Hardie, Linda Cropper, Simon Maiden
In a technologically enhanced near-future, a sentient computer implant helps a quadriplegic search for the men who murdered his wife.
My initial encounter with “Upgrade” was a miserable movie-going experience. It was Saturday of SXSW 2018 and I was coming down from a healthy beer buzz fueled by plentiful day drinking as well as an open bar party prior to the film’s midnight premiere. That inebriation factor is 100% on me. Other external influences were beyond my control.
The screening didn’t begin on time, which is not at all uncommon at any festival with a million moving parts. Ordinarily, a slight delay wouldn’t be a big deal. Except “Upgrade” also included some poorly planned pre-show hullabaloo featuring Jason Blum in a lab coat emceeing as someone received a live RFID injection. The device injection didn’t make much sense as supposed entertainment, and also didn’t work, leaving bewildered attendees to wonder, “we’re starting an hour late for this?”
Add in the fact that Daylight Saving Time was coming into play and “Upgrade” was effectively two hours behind. Add a post-screening Q&A on top of that, and remember seating began 30 minutes before the originally scheduled start time, and you’re looking at incarceration in a cramped theater chair for an unreasonably big block of time.
Call me crabby if you want, I won’t put up a fight. But festival programmers and presenters ought to take note: If your 90-minute midnight movie doesn’t send its audience home until after 4:00am, that’s an issue highly likely to unfavorably salt their moods. It did for me in this circumstance anyway, as I left “Upgrade” utterly bleary, and perhaps unfairly projected annoyance onto my perception of the movie.
I later wrote a rough draft review based on a lot of negative notes. One of those notes was, “I’m bored,” possibly written as an unheard plea for rescue. Another scribbled sentence simply said, “this is a disappointment.”
Ultimately, I didn’t publish that coal-raking. As much as I’d like to believe I can disassociate environment from experience, I had to consider that hunger, a headache, and tired frustration influenced impartiality, particularly since the movie received praise everywhere else, including winning SXSW’s Audience Award in the Midnighters category.
Home video afforded another swing at “Upgrade” under more comfortable conditions. In the end, a rating initially scored at 45/100 rose to 65/100, although I’ll entertain the possibility that my first viewing left such a bad taste that the score should be higher still. Conversely, assumptive guilt could have primed me too positively for the second spin, and I was actually on point the first time. Who knows? I only offer this anecdotal digression to frame where I’m coming from.
Comparing what I wrote after SXSW to what I think now, I can say that I was definitely wrong about my initial assessment of lead actor Logan Marshall-Green. Marshall-Green cemented me as a supporter after his perfectly pitched performance in “The Invitation” (review here), far and away my favorite film of 2015. So I was surprised to see my notes say, “LMG isn’t right for this role.”
A second look suggests my issue came from his character. Grey Trace, a hands-on mechanic, is an analog man unwilling/unable to adapt to a digital world where A.I. automates everything. He aims to be an Everyman hero in a Hitchcockian wrong place, wrong time scenario, yet his setup screams of stale stereotyping not necessarily befitting a throwback action movie.
But Logan Marshall-Green absolutely electrifies Grey into a flesh-and-blood being the same way computer implant “Stem” reshapes quadriplegic Grey into a furiously finessed fighting machine. Marshall-Green adds countless tiny touches, even into otherwise inconsequential moments, pinching individual scenes with levity, heartbreak, or adrenaline rush shock to always take his dialogue or plot purpose one extra step. Even when Grey doesn’t connect, Logan Marshall-Green always does, and his charismatic commitment carries “Upgrade” a great distance.
Other actors genuinely are odd fits. Harrison Gilbertson plays billionaire tech genius Eron Keen with such a cracker dry personality, his awkwardness reads as brainless blandness. And of the four henchmen earning Grey’s ire, I don’t know why the mousier man in a mustache was cast as the main heavy.
The script curiously chooses a video game-like route for progression that isn’t entirely intriguing either. Grey basically follows a straight line from one bad guy to the next in pursuit of a twist that can hardly be considered revelatory since all of Grey’s paths make stops in identical locations.
To be sure, writer/director Leigh Whannell pulls every available trick out of the bag built since his early indie days to stretch “Upgrade” as far as anyone possibly could. Crisp cinematography combined with alert editing creates bone-cracking physical fights out of straightforward choreography. Lighting crafts a colorful near-future where restrictive sets can’t. Intelligent filmmakers know how to make technical tools do the heavy lifting, and Whannell employs his extensive experience to give “Upgrade” a fluid visual sheen.
But limited funds still show some seams. For instance, a tame car chase largely looks like what it is: two vehicles repeatedly passing other cars at relatively safe speeds.
The film’s fans champion its boffo splatter effects and unabashed machismo recalling a time when Arnold reigned supreme in cinema. Going for an old-school vibe of fists, flipping cars, and a wronged man out for revenge also comes with a cheese factor where it can simultaneously be seen as implausibly silly or contemporarily out of touch.
I would argue that “Upgrade” plays less like a lower-budgeted 1980s Schwarzenegger extravaganza and more like a bigger-budgeted Full Moon sci-fi romp. Decide for yourself if that makes the movie sound unappealing or up your alley.
Personally, I can see “Upgrade” from positive and negative viewpoints since I’ve had both. My current conclusion is that the film hits precisely the notes of stylish violence and minor sci-fi spectacle it sets out to strike. Some of those notes are off key or out of tune, but that’s kind of in keeping with the type of retro madness “Upgrade” makes a meal out of.
Don’t take my word on it though. Given how the first two trips went, a third watch might leave me with another take altogether.
Review Score: 65