Blumhouse Productions has given film audiences some remarkable horror franchises including PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS, THE PURGE, and SINISTER. Blumhouse’s latest release, under the BH Tilt banner, is entitled UPGRADE and the sci-fi thriller could quickly become the next breakout series for them. It’s wickedly witty, zips along with gusto, and has a rich premise that could easily yield a number of sequels.
If you liked actioners from the Reagan era like ROBOCOP and THE TERMINATOR, you’re going to love this one. Writer/director Leigh Whannell clearly does, and his affection for them is evident in the dystopian premise of UPGRADE. Whannell’s story concerns a not too distant future, similar to those depicted in those above 80’s classics, where technology has enabled society in both good ways and bad. UPGRADE portrays self-driving cars, computer-run households, and police drone surveillance dotting every corner of the population, but some incendiary upgrades have been baked into the mix too. Advanced weaponry can now be fused into one’s body, turning one’s arm into an arm, as in the semi-automatic kind.
Automobile mechanic Grey Trace (Boy, there’s an 80’s sounding movie character name!) disdains such advances, preferring to restore old cars in his garage and listen to music on vinyl. As played by Logan Marshall-Green, Trace comes off like a gruff cowboy, an old-school sort with a low-key swagger who quietly rages against the future. Ironically, his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is 180-degrees different, toiling in the tech industry as a high-powered executive. Still, their relationship works in the best kind of “opposites attract” dynamic.
One night, Grey and Asha deliver a restored classic automobile to a wealthy customer on the outskirts of town. Grey’s private client is an eccentric inventor/billionaire named Eron (a vamp on the name Enron or Elon Musk, perhaps?). As played by a suitably sinister Harrison Gilbert, Eron lives in a lavish home underground where he’s working on the development of a computer chip called STEM that is a genuine game changer. It looks like a literal bug, almost like a cockroach, and soon enough, this “bugging device” will change Grey’s life forever.
On the way home, Asha’s self-driving car malfunctions and takes the couple on a dangerous detour straight into the wrong side of town. As soon as it crashes, a gang of thugs descends upon them, and Asha is shot dead in the scuffle. Grey fights back but is pummeled and left a quadriplegic. He survives, but in the hospital, the forlorn widower begs for someone to end his life as he cannot move his limbs.
When Eron visits him there, Grey’s attitude starts to improve. The creepy genius offers Grey a miracle cure in STEM. The spinal implant would not only restore all his mobility but also give the vengeance-minded man the opportunity to hunt down his wife’s killers. Grey reluctantly agrees and is soon on Eron’s operating table getting the STEM attached to his brain stem. Quicker than you can say, “Doc Ock!”, Grey is up and moving around like his old self again.
Not only does Grey have all of his mobility back, but STEM also enhances every one of his functions. He can run faster, listen better, and think smarter. STEM even talks to him in a voice that only he can hear, and the independent-thinking computer chip becomes Grey’s counsel, alter ego and fight coach taking total control of his body when he goes looking for a fight. As Grey and STEM reckon with their technological powers and hunt their prey, the movie becomes very analogous to ROBOCOP, particularly as Grey is conflicted between his humanity and mechanical abilities. Yes, he can snap the neck of his victim in five, precise moves, but is this the man he wants to be?
The scenes where STEM calmly takes over and then directs Grey on exactly how to kick, chop, and destroy with economy are a hoot and a half. It will remind you of how Robert Downey’s SHERLOCK HOLMES plotted his fight moves in his head before executing the blows in Guy Ritchie’s modernistic take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth. The scenes are exhilarating action set-pieces, but they’re also cheekily farcical. This sci-fi tale isn’t afraid to be laugh-out-loud hilarious during these scenes, as Grey watches his body do things he couldn’t imagine doing.
Here, Whannell is making pointed commentary about our over-reliance on machines, but also on how silly fight scenes have gotten cinematically. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of difference between how STEM enhances Grey’s fighting versus the overly choreographed and physically impossible action scenes in any screen adventure that comes down the pike these days. Whannell ensures the satire comes through by having Stefan Duscio’s crisp cinematography sped up, along with Andy Canny’s quick-cut editing. One all but expects Benny Hill’s favorite song “Yakety Sax” to accompany these fight scenes.
Of course, as corpses stop popping up, complications for Grey and Eron ensue when Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) starts sniffing around, and the thugs’ leader Fisk (Benedict Hardie) starts putting the pieces together. He's a shrewd villain, and physically has advantages too. One of his tricked-out arms allows him to point his finger and unleash an arsenal of bullets, just as he did in slaying Asha.
There are shades of DEATH WISH to this tale of vengeance, of course, not to mention a significant nod to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY what with STEM’s voice clearly riffing on HAL 9000. The silky threats from STEM, voiced by Simon Maiden, have the same effeminate lilt as the computer from Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece, and that only adds to the humor when STEM turns Grey into such a bad-ass killing machine. As the film plays on, Marshall-Green and Maiden almost become a comedy team, and as sequels are likely ordered, it will behoove the filmmakers to choose characters that humorously contrast with STEM’s quiet treachery in the same way.
UPGRADE could have been just a B-picture, albeit an expensively-produced one, but Whannell is as serious about his social commentary as he is about entertaining us. He sees a future both beautiful and increasingly dilapidated. The gulf between the rich and poor will only widen, and this film serves as a stinging political commentary about the disparity between the classes. Whannell also sees our humanity becoming more and more fragile, while AI’s start to imitate our worse traits too like selfishness and greed.
There are comedies out there that don’t have a tenth of the laughs that UPGRADE contains and even fewer genre films that so brilliantly visualize a world and all aspects of it. UPGRADE is indeed a higher standard of actioner for other moviemakers to aspire to. Blumhouse has mastered horror and UPGRADE indicates that they’re ready to conquer different genres too. They’re kind of like the STEM of genre filmmaking, latching onto the entertainment world and showing us how it should be done with finesse and economy. More power to them.