Upgrade ***1/2



One Liner Review:

A very cool futuristic action movie / neo-noir mystery, this one is part Robocop and part the Crow, and it may be dark and gory, but it’s also pretty badass.

Brief Review:

Now this is a cool movie. In all fairness, without the futuristic elements, this movie would be nothing. But it leans hard on those and really makes them a part of the movie, as opposed to just background setting. Here we have a story of a man whose wife is murdered in front of him and who is basically left for dead. His only chance at nut being a paraplegic is to undergo robotic surgery, and so he does. Only the robot is like an AI inside of him, complete with its own personality and abilities. He then spends the movie going on a vengeance mission not unlike the Crow or Kill Bill. But here, it’s not just our protagonist, Grey who is pumped full of future tech. It’s the villains too, and really the whole world around him. From self-driving cars to guns inside of hands, this one is pretty cool.


Upgrade is a wild futurist movie made by the writer of the Saw films. Leigh Whannell wrote not only the Saw movies, but also the Insidious films. These were the movies that put his film school buddy, director James Waan, on the map. They were instant horror classics that led to spinoffs and full series’. And clearly Waan had some talent of his own, being the brains that came up with the ideas for these massive success stories.It wasn’t long before Whannell wanted to try his hand at directing as well, and he broke into this with Insidious Chapter 3. From there, he made Upgrade and then The Invisible Man, all movies filled with creative and very dark ideas. Upgrade is the movie in particular that shows just how skilled Whannell really is. It is a dark vengeful thriller along the lines of the Crow or Kill Bill, about a man who is attacked, forced to watch his wife get executed, and is more or less left for dead. But then he gets a second chance at life and uses this to go full on hardcore after revenge. And unlike those other movies with similar concepts, this time the guy is part man, part machine. Think Robocop meets the Crow, and you’ve got a pretty solid idea.

Like Robocop, it’s not just the cyborg element of the character that’s futuristic here. It’s the whole world around him. And that’a shown to use from the very beginning, with self-driving cars and home systems that show what the world might very well one day be like. This is very different than something like Minority Report (another great movie,) which is so far removed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how that could one day become reality (the blue -gray – white filters used to present the world, throughout that movie don’t help make it any more relatable.) But Upgrade is something different. Especially in the early scenes where we are welcomed into this new age of technology, and see it in many ways combined with areas of life we are already familiar with. A man drinks a bottled beer while working under the hood of a car and listening to music. Nothing out of the ordinary here. This man is  Grey Trace (Logan Marshall Green,) a mechanic who works on retro cars for some very rich clients. And when he leaves the garage and walks outside, we start to see the current state of things in the world this movie has created.

Grey’s wife, Asha, pulls up to the house in her self-driving car, while having a video conversation with someone over a TV screen. The car looks like an army version of the Batmobile in the Christopher Nolan – Christian Bale Batman movies. There are no windows or weak spots in any way, and instead the car resembles a sleek tank, on the outside. On the inside, it’s all about the comfort. Asha sits back in spacious, luxurious seats and enjoys her conversation and her ride. And then the car arrives at the house, and the screen where she sees the image of the person she is speaking with turns into the car window.  No glass or anything, but just a see through image, revealing the outside. And Grey is right there, on the driveway, looking into her window, surprising her. Asha goes into the house and we get to see exactly what it’s like when a character is welcomed home by an artificial intelligence operating system. That means a voice system talking to the character, welcoming them home, announcing the music and lighting that is changing and even updates about such things as the weather. It’s not unlike Jarvis in the Iron Man movies. And Asha immediately goes to a counter area, where she able to play around with the images and searches, and basically use the internet to do whatever she wants on the giant display she is leaning on. It’s all pretty cool.

Grey asks Asha to come with him to drop off a car at the home of one of his wealthy clients. He tells her he wants to show her the guy’s house. Plus he needs a ride back in her cool self-driving car. Asha is reluctant at first, but she agrees and together they go to see Eron Keen, a man who looks a dresses like David Bowie as a scientist. Keen is on the cutting edge of all things technology. When they enter his home, he is working on a physical cloud in the air, giving it things like lightning inside of it. And Keen shows them his latests project, called STEM. It’s a little bug like computer chip that Keen claims can do anything. It’s the future of the world. Grey and Asha leave and while on the road, in their self-driving car, the car decides to take them to a different location. It takes them into Grey’s old neighborhood, a very bad part of town that he is familiar with and recognizes instantly as an area where they don’t want to be. The two of them try to stop the car in all different ways, but none of it works, and pretty soon the car has left the ground and is crashing through the air, then plummeting to the ground, injuring them both. Grey and Asha are both pulled out of the vehicle by masked men who say they are there to help. Only they’re not. These men are here for nefarious reasons, and they beat Grey, put something into his neck the turns him in a paraplegic, and kill Asha right in front of him.

This is a pretty brutal beginning to our story. It doesn’t get any lighter. In fact, at this point, Grey becomes suicidal. Detective Cortez of the local police department comes to speak with him, but despite all of these drones in the sky recording video of everything that happened, the police still can’t identify any of the killers. And on top of losing his wife, Grey can no longer move a single muscle in his body. Nothing below his neck. His mom comes to take care of him for a while, but there’s really nothing she can do except help prepare some drinks that he can sip through a straw. And that’s when Grey gets a visit from Keen. The man explains that STEM can make him whole again. It can make him walk, move, and do anything he used to be able to do. With nothing to lose, Grey agrees. He goes back to Keen’s place for a surgical operation, where STEM is implanted into his back. And then Grey tests it out. For the first time, he can move his hands and arms and even walk again.


Back at home, Grey is watching videos from those drones of his wife’s murder when suddenly there’s a voice that starts talking to him. It’s STEM, inside of his body, really inside of his head. At first, Grey doesn’t like this. He tells STEM to stop talking and STEM shuts up. Then he asks STEM a question, and STEM continues to keep quiet until Grey gives it permission to start speaking again. At one point Grey tells STEM to shut off completely and suddenly Grey can’t move anymore. He turns STEM back on, and the voice (which is basically an operating system inside of him,) tells Grey that it is not Grey who is moving. It is STEM who is connecting his brain to his muscles, and so without STEM, Grey is really still a paraplegic. It’s a scary thought, that this computer chip inside of him can control whether Grey is paralyzed or not at any given moment.


STEM also starts talking to Grey about what it notices in the video. It zooms in, enhances images, and shows Grey that one of the men at the scene has a tattoo which is actually enough of a clear image that it can be scanned to determine exactly who the man is, and where he lives. Grey uses this information to go pay the man a visit. The guy in the video is Serk Branter. He is ex-military, and Grey waits outside of his house for Serk to leave. Then Grey enters, snoops around, and has to hide when Serk arrives back home shortly after that. Serk notices Grey, and pretty soon the two of them are in a full on fight, and Grey is getting beaten badly. That’s when STEM tells Grey that he can take over and Grey gives STEM permission. Suddenly Grey becomes a wild fighting machine. His body is moving in ways that his head can barely follow. His hands smash dish after dish over Serk’s head, and at one point Grey even tells Serk to stay down, not in control of what STEM will do if the man keeps getting up and fighting. When Serk pulls a knife, STEM easily takes it and uses it to kill SERK, ending with a particularly brutal shot to the mouth. This is where the Leigh Whanell horror material starts coming in. Images like this, or what happens to the next killer Grey finds during a bathroom fight.


That next killer is the next target on Grey’s list. He knows the bar where this band of killers frequents, and so he goes to pay it a visit, announcing to the crowd that he is looking for anyone who knew Serk or the people who killed his wife. This is met mostly with laughter, however when Grey tells the crowd that he’s the one who killed Serk, one man stands up, walks forward, and asks the bartender to turn the music up. Then he and his friends take Grey to the men’s room and prepare to beat on the paraplegic. Grey keeps to the guise that he can’t move and is incapable of fighting back, for a while. He is after one thing… getting the man who is attacking him to admit that he was one of the killers at the scene of his wife’s murder. And as soon as this man does admit it, Grey let’s STEM take over and he goes to town on these guys. When the main villain here is down, but refuses to talk and give Grey any information, Grey uses a knife and lets STEM go at it on the man’s face. Again, this is the Whanell horror thing going on, and it is pretty brutal. Luckily we don’t see too much of what happens, but we certainly see the end result.


At this point, we are solidly into the second half of the movie. Two of the four killers have been taken care of. Like Kill Bill or the Crow, Grey is going after them one at a time. He doesn’t have a list where he crosses names off, but he might as well. And now we start learning more about our head villain, Fisk. Greg has his own problems to deal with, including Keen shutting STEM down. That means suddenly Grey’s limbs stop working and he slowly loses control of his movement. But STEM doesn’t want to be shut down, and so it leads Grey to a hacker who can override Keen’s control. The hacker lives in an abandoned apartment filled with people who are living in Virtual Reality going days without stopping their games. Grey asks about this and why anyone woujld choose to live in that world, and there is definitely some foreshadowing here of what is to come. But while this is going on, we also spend time with the villain who is following up on the murder of his friends. Fisk visits the bar and doesn’t exactly like that the bar tender didn’t help his buddy out. This is when we start to learn about all of the technology Fisk has inside of him, and what he is capable of.


Like Grey, Fisk and really all of the members of his team are part of the “Upgraded.” This means that they are all part cyborg and have certain things implanted into them. Fisk is able to put his fingers on the eyes of other people (at least other “Upgraded,”) and to see what that person saw, as if rewinding a video. He is also able to sneeze and have the material that comes out of his nose and mouth transform while in the air into something sharp and metallic that kills. And all fo the members of his team have guns implanted into their arms. This means they can literally fire from the palms of their hands, and in many cases we get to see exactly that. This is pretty cool stuff. If the first half was about the every day technology of this futuristic world, then the second half is about the military technology of these special cyborgs. And all the while we are caught up in a mystery and revenge story. It’s all pretty fantastic. The twists at the end are a little much, and also the movie is a little too dark for its own good. Not as far ad tone, a movie like this absolutely needs to have a dark tone, but in terms of actual lighting and how much the viewer can see. Still, the movie is filled with clever ideas and an interesting way to tell a somewhat familiar story. This one is very entertaining.