Upgrade Movie Review – A cybernetic thriller with grim humor
Upgrade (2018) is a cyberpunk thriller that paints a murky outlook on technologically enhanced humans in the near-future. Self-driving vehicles, VR technology and artificial intelligence are already a reality today. Just imagine how much further we will have developed and integrated these technologies in the years to come. The believable aspects to the futuristic setting in Upgrade adds to the disconcerting anxiousness to what could be in store for the next stage in humanity.
Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mechanic. He restores classic, non-digital cars for wealthy clients. Grey finds it personally rewarding to work with his hands all day in the garage. One night, he asks his wife Asha to come along with him to drop off a restored Trans Am at his client’s house. Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works for a start-up tech company and is pleasantly surprised to meet Grey’s client Eron Keen, the young genius owner of the prestigious tech-giant Vessel. On their way home, their self-driving car malfunctions, taking them to a dangerous part of town where Grey grew-up. After the car crashes, violent thugs assault Grey, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
This all sounds pretty bleak, yet for the most part there is an enjoyable vibe of grim humor in the screenplay. Logan Marshall-Green hits the right playful tone in scenes that are serious but also meant to be amusing. Grey is understandably cantankerous after his tragic injury. He’s not afraid to let people know exactly how he feels. Beneath the anger, he mostly feels helpless. After Grey gets his high-tech upgrade, it opens up entertaining situations for him to get into and out of. Because Logan Marshall-Green resembles Tom Hardy, Upgrade brings to mind some parallels with Venom, an anti-hero meets symbiote story.
One of Upgrade’s strength is also its main drawback. At approximately 1 hr 40 mins in length, Upgrade is always advancing ahead to the next story development. Upgrade’s interesting premise could be better served in a longer narrative, perhaps episodic format. If the mystery gradually unfolded over a TV season arc, the twists and turns could have had a steady build up as well as deliver a strong overall impact. That said, Grey’s new abilities are satisfying to watch. But you get the sense that many ideas touched upon could be explored further. Upgrade lands on a particular note that some audiences might have mixed emotions about. The story itself feels unfinished.
The fast pace also comes at the expense of developing the supporting characters. Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) is on the case to help Grey identify the criminals. Fresh off her memorable performance in Get Out, Betty Gabriel is solid again here. With even less screen time is the criminally underdeveloped Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). He’s an autistic, socially awkward brilliant tech mind whose motivation is cloaked in mystery. Lastly, the criminal Fisk (Benedict Hardie) would have made for a great season-long villain, unfortunately his back-story is never explained.
Under the direction of Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3), Upgrade is an amalgamation of a bunch of familiar movies. Whannell didn’t set out to make a revenge movie although you can appreciate it on that level. The horror elements are well-handed. The action and fight scenes are also enjoyable. It’s mostly a compliment to say that Upgrade leaves the viewer wanting more. The good news is that a sequel is in the works and hopefully the supporting characters will be fleshed out.