Upgrade review: an exhilarating if flawed sci-fi

Leigh Whannell’s techno-terror actioner Upgrade is fast-paced fun.

A super-high concept sci-fi thriller that plays like a feature length Black Mirror episode written by a Philip K Dick fan and directed in the style of a ‘90s actioner, Upgrade could be one of the most energetic and purely likable movies of the summer. It’s ridiculous – that’s a given. And unfortunately it relies heavily on premise over plot or characterisation. But that shouldn’t stop audiences having an absolute blast in a movie packed with action set pieces, cool future-tech and a decent amount of gore to boot.

Set in a near future dystopia, Logan Marshall Green stars as Grey Trace, a car mechanic with an inherent mistrust of the tech that has taken over the world. Most cars are now driverless, a large chunk of police work is done remotely via drones and a handful of young geniuses are developing such advanced gadgets that the human work force could become obsolete any time soon.

In a terrible bit of irony, a horrible accident leaves Grey paralysed – now the highly-advanced oojamaflip invented by precocious entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) is the only thing that can give Grey back his freedom and his life. And for better or worse, it gives him a whole lot more on top.

Though the trailer gives a strong sense of where the first half of the movie is heading, if you can avoid it you’ll be treated to the joy of one of the funniest, coolest, most surprising action sequences of the summer, as Grey finally understand the capabilities of ‘STEM’ – the implant that’s allowed him to walk again. A little bit Matrix, a little bit John Wick, with a big chunk of sci-fi fabulous, absolute kudos should go to Marshall Green and director Leigh Whannell for pulling it off.

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Whannell is probably best known for his collaborations with James Wan, co-writing and starring in Saw and its sequels, and Insidious – Whannell directed Insidious part 3. With Upgrade Whannell has stepped out of James Wan’s shadow and come into his own, proving himself a distinctive and talented action director. The choreography of Upgrade is glorious and Marshall Green handles it with style.

There are plenty of clever twists and turns in the narrative – Upgrade is a satisfying and complete vignette that we suspect will hold up to multiple viewings even after its secrets are revealed.

Why only three stars then? The problem with Upgrade is that the set up and concept are so strong that what actually happens is both repetitive and predictable, making the second half of the film bizarrely boring for a movie this pacey and action packed. Instead Upgrade plays like a video game movie, where Grey has to use his skills to defeat a series of baddies one after the other.

Upgrade is also guilty of playing to some very familiar tropes (no spoilers) and because it fits into a fairly well-tread subgenre – fear of technology and A.I.s taking over – it feels at times like a bit of a mash-up of several other things. Entertaining and stylish but somewhat throwaway, the dialogue is often expositional and functional, and the characterisation flimsy. The new Blade Runner this is not…

Still, for fans of films like The Guest, The Purge and The Matrix who enjoy a healthy bit of techo-fear, Upgrade is excellent fun. And the world of Upgrade is perfectly suited to a sequel, too – we wouldn’t be surprised if Leigh Whannell got his very own franchise at last.

For a summer bereft of big hitters, in a cinematic era saturated with multi-million dollar comicbook films and ever-growing expanded universes, original, fun, and slightly silly B-movies like Upgrade and The Meg feel like a welcome palette cleanser – back to basics entertainment running under two hours, which require no prior knowledge and not much mental or emotional investment.

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Upgrade’s fear of a homogenised and dehumanised society is a message which works as a metaphor for the movie, too – if the MCU and its ilk are the super-slick successful equivalent of cinematic A.I.s then Upgrade is the human and flawed alternative. Rough around the edges yes, but somehow more charming for it.

Upgrade opens in cinemas on 31 August.


3 out of 5