In the world of writer/director Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, men and women thin away into an oblivion of commodified technology: a woman’s self-driving car shields away any image of the outside world, a sleek tank of a carriage that careens through the highways of a not-too-distant future. It’s both familiar and innovative, as Whannell’s future is one defined by ameliorations on the modern. But it’s Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) who’s our quote unquote transcendentalist, our HDT on Walden Pond. We first see Grey working on his American muscle car, toiling away amid grease and sweat. Whannell makes it agonizingly clear that Grey is a capital M Man, suiting the character with a penchant for retrophilia that speaks to a higher mode of thinking that values traditional values over that of our modern age. Oh boy. The braggart gets his comeuppance, as Whannell navigates a sometimes intriguing, mostly slipshod narrative on technological dependence that summons the memory of better, more accomplished films of this type. Still, you could do worse than a film that models itself after Robocop.
Following a sketchy car accident, Grey and his girlfriend Ashe (Melanie Vallejo) are accosted by a cadre of nameless thugs. Ashe is subsequently murdered while Grey is left paralyzed. Desperate for retribution, Grey submits to an experimental operation that implants a device called STEM into his body, allowing him to walk again. And so begins Grey’s violent revenge fantasy (are revenge fantasies ever otherwise described?) The film is considerably light on investigative probing, opting instead to move from one violent setpiece to the next, as STEM begins to seize control of Grey’s body as the two uncover the layers behind Ashe’s murder. There’s a kind of novelty to the way Whannell frames his action sequences, valuing a comic affront as Marshall-Green’s facial gestures and bodily movements rarely correspond. It’s akin to the abrupt, frantic choreography of Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, with Whannell typically crescendoing each action sequence with one brutally violent gesture. There’s something notably satisfying about this approach that frankly never wears thin.
There’s gumption to Upgrade that makes it easy to appreciate moment to moment. It makes no grand gesture toward likability and more or less operates in on primal thrills. Akin to last year’s excellent Brawl in Cell Block 99, the B-movie aesthetic Upgrade strives for seems modest and strips away any cumbersome qualities to just the bare essentials. But there’s a didactic quality to the narrative, particularly toward its final act that borders on belligerent, where its numerous non sequiturs yearn to speak to something more profound on the nature of technology on our daily lives and mental health. Most of these gestures toward profundity are utterly saccharine and vapid. Of course, this is coming from someone who found the cellular degeneration of a character – instigated by, of all things, a sneeze – to be Upgrade’s supreme delight, so who am I to judge?