Film Review: “Upgrade” Delivers Power and Pizzazz, However Silly

Film poster: “Upgrade”

Upgrade (Leigh Whannell, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.

All upgrades should dazzle. What’s the point, otherwise, right? Not that they always do. however; so many are novel in name only, offering only more of the same at a different price point. But what if you, yourself, could be upgraded, a microchip implanted into your ruined body, allowing ultra-fast movement, lightning reflexes and omniscient thought. Who would say no to that? So what if the chip has a mind of its own and is it not content merely to serve, wanting to control, as well? For millennia, humans have sacrificed freedom for security and power. What would you give up to be a superhero?

Welcome to Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Robocop, and also uniquely its own thing. Starring an excellent Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) as Grey Trace, a man left a quadriplegic by the same men who killed his wife, the film takes us on a wild ride where violent action meets wry humor and fine fight choreography, the whole an entertaining amalgam of gloom and chuckle. Though occasionally hampered by over-the-top performances (not from Marshall-Green, always good) and wooden dialogue, the movie mostly works as a delightful pop-culture meditation on the dangers of combining artificial intelligence (AI) with biological material, something not that far-fetched, today. It’s good, dumb fun, and pretty smart about it, to boot.

Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3) does quite a lot with very little. Working off what looks like a relatively small budget, he maximizes return on investment through extremely clever mise-en-scène. I normally enjoy neither the sight of graphic violence nor the sounds of crunching bones, but the inventiveness of the hand-to-hand combat, paired with the ingenious sci-fi details layered over a simple revenge story, make the grotesquerie work. The plot is simple enough: man watches wife die, almost dies himself and is paralyzed, then is given an “upgrade” wherein a tiny AI device is implanted in his spine, becomes all-powerful, seeks out men who killed said wife and kills them. What’s not to love?

Logan Marshall-Green in UPGRADE ©Blumhouse Productions

True, all actors within are not created equal. I’ll avoid shaming them, but only Marshall-Green truly shines. Wait, not true. Simon Maiden, as the voice of STEM – our unruly AI – though never seen, is a treasure. His simultaneous monotone and emotionally evocative speech pattern – which recall Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 computer – are the source of much of the film’s comedy (as well as its horror). He and Marshall-Green make a great team. So, forget the silliness of much of what is on display, sit back and give up control to STEM … I mean … Whannell, for just over 90 minutes, and enjoy the thrill of the new device.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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