On paper, a film about a man who is left for dead and thanks to a fusion of man and machine, is able to hunt down and get revenge on the men who attacked him sounds very similar to Robocop.
However writer-director Leigh Whannell has proven very skilled at taking ideas from 80s movies such as Robocop and Poltergeist and upgrading them into modern, Grindhouse (or should that be Blumhouse) hits.
Having worked for the past decade in the horror genre with the Saw and Insidious franchises, Whannell moves into another genre ripe for reinvention, science fiction.
In Upgrade, Logan Marshall-Green (NOT Tom Hardy) stars as Grey Trace, a mechanic who lives in the near-future but lives for a simpler time when everything is not controlled by technology. He is a self-confessed Luddite who listens to vinyl and repairs classic cars to sell to wealthy collectors. He is also happily married to Asha, who is the antithesis of Grey and embraces this modern world and works within the medical industry.
One night after delivering a hot rod to mysterious tech giant Eron Keen, who is as socially awkward as he is wealthy, the couple are attacked by a group of men who kill Asha and leave Grey paralysed from the neck down.
Descending into suicidal depression at his situation and the police’s inability to use all this technology to catch his wife’s killers, Grey accepts Keen’s offer of being a guinea pig for a new cybernetic treatment called STEM. A revolutionary microchip is placed at the top of his spine that reboots his body, allowing him to walk again… but the A.I. system might just have more than that in mind.
Voiced by Simon Maiden, STEM is as softly spoken but potentially as dangerous as the likes of HAL in 2001 or GERTY in Moon.
Only audible to Grey within his own head, Maiden sparks off of Marshall-Green to make an entertaining double act similar to Jekyll & Hyde or the upcoming Eddie Brock/Venom dynamic as STEM tries to convince him that they can lead the investigation and gain vengeance on their own.
STEM is not wrong as the very first fight scene where he takes control of Grey’s motor functions proves in a shocking and kinetically charge sequence that showcases his upgraded potential and the strengths of Marshall-Green’s physical performance that is the perfect balance between human and robot in the fluidity of his movements as the two battle for supremacy within one shell.
It is not just the character of Grey who is upgraded. Whannell’s skills as a directing are upgrading at an exponential rate as well. Between the Wu-Shu, Asian inspired fight scenes that feature some fantastic camera work that seemingly tracks around the fixed point of Grey to impressive effect; to a car chase on a freeway that is worlds away from the “car chase” that featured in the very first Saw film.
Upgrade is very much a genre piece that wears its influences on its cybernetically enhanced sleeves but given a fresh spin but never at the expense of the gritty, grimy filmmaking style that evolved out of the video nasty era of the 80s where invention was born out of micro-budgets.
The final product is one where Whannell is the Eron Keen to Logan Marshall-Green’s Grey, stepping him out of that Tom Hardy developing him into the charismatic leading man and action hero.
Upgrade is the cinematic equivalent of the remodelled Nokia 3210. A comforting, hark back to a simpler time that is brought bang up to date with all the bells and whistles of the modern age.