Review – Sci-fi thriller ‘Upgrade’ really wants to be Cronenberg

Poster for 2018 sci-fi thriller Upgrade

Genre: Sci-fi
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 31st August 2018
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Betty Gabriel, Melanie Vallejo, Benedict Hardie
Synopsis: When his wife is killed in an attack that leaves him paralysed, a man uses an advanced cybernetic implant to restore his mobility and embark upon a revenge mission.

 

 

Since he co-created the Saw juggernaut with James Wan, it’s fair to say that Leigh Whannell has not been short of work and has carved out an impressive career as a genre filmmaker. His latest collaboration with Blumhouse, with whom he has worked throughout the Insidious franchise, is the sci-fi thriller Upgrade. It follows a tech-driven descent into darkness that has lashings of ultra-violence, splashes of Black Mirror‘s social commentary and more than a hint of David Cronenberg‘s trademark body horror. With enviable ingredients, though, it simply manages to produce a pretty bland cinematic bouillabaisse.

The movie is set in a bizarre near-future in which almost everyone has a technological body enhancement of some kind, while cars have been replaced by strange, self-driving gold monstrosities that hold conversations with their owners. In this world, stay-at-home mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is pure Luddite, steadfastly working on the internal combustion engine while appearing more hostile to tech than your gran after a few glasses of sherry at Christmas. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), works for a big tech company and offers to drive Grey to deliver a car to his rich inventor client Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). On the way home, they’re attacked and Asha is murdered, with Grey left paralysed.

It’s a grim opening to a movie that delights in the grey urban nightmare of its futurescape. This only becomes darker when Grey takes on a highly advanced microchip from Eron, which is installed into his brain and allows him to walk again. With newfound strength and instincts from the being inside him, known as STEM, he embarks on a Death Wish style quest for revenge. This leads Whannell down some ultra-violent paths, and the bloodletting gets to the next level very quickly.

Fortunately, it’s in that violence that Whannell hits his groove and style. This is certainly a slick production and there’s an initial intrigue to Grey’s robotic style of fighting. That intrigue, however, falls away pretty quickly as every fight seems rather similar. There’s also an issue with the constant cybernetic enhancements getting in the way. This movie takes Henry Cavill‘s reloading arms to the next level, with arms that can actually be reloaded. As with the protagonist’s fighting style, this starts off quite interesting, but gradually becomes dull.

All of the above would be less of an issue if Upgrade felt as if it had something to say. Whannell has repeatedly used Black Mirror as a point of comparison in interviews, but his story lacks the hammer-blow plot twists or the tightly woven social commentary that has made that show such a success. He lunges more towards the work of Cronenberg in his heyday, looking for Videodrome, but feeling a lot more like Betamax. This is simply a film with no viewpoint beyond the very basic notion underpinning every sci-fi movie made for the last few decades – we’re a bit too reliant on tech and we should probably pump the brakes a little. It’s hardly a ground-breaking argument in 2018.

It doesn’t help that Logan Marshall-Green – who looks and moves like a discount store Tom Hardy – is an entirely uninteresting protagonist. His Luddite lifestyle feels preposterous and unfounded, while his internal struggles with the growing influence of STEM lack the sense of intensity that they need in order to keep the story moving forward. By the time the narrative pieces fall into place, the whole thing has spiralled into pure style over substance, where even the style isn’t as fun as it should be.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Poop!

With a pretty dull lead and a premise that’s ripped from better sci-fi movies, Upgrade is a missed opportunity for Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse. It’s got intrigue to its initial premise and benefits hugely from Whannell’s undeniable directorial style, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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