B-movies have been getting a lot of love over the years, what with films like Grindhouse bringing arthouse cred to the genre and films like Rampage offering big budget b-movie mayhem. But there’s still room for actual B-movies to not only get made on the cheap, but also find creative storytelling devices to raise their game, maximizing their potential. Much like the AI portrayed in it, Upgrade is a film that uses all of it’s talent to maximize it’s own potential. Taking a story from writer/director Leigh Whannell (co-creator of the Saw franchise) and the low-budget producing power of Jason Blum (Get Out, Split, The Purge), Upgrade is an effective sci-fi action thriller, using a dark sense of humor and stylized storytelling on a concept that it part Her, part Terminator, and part Death Wish.
Taking place in an unknown city in the not-to-distant future, Upgrade is a revenge story told through the lens of a society dominated by technology, where AI runs our homes and our cars, police patrol the skies with endless drones, and humans are augmenting their bodies with everything from digital eyes to gun arms. What’s a gun arm? It’s a gun that’s been implanted into your arm, obviously. After an incident where a gang of thugs kills his wife and leaves him paralyzed, mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is given an experimental chip implant gives him the gift of mobility again. Not only does this chip, called STEM, allow him to walk again, but it can also communicate with him, aiding in his search for the killers and giving him nearly superhuman levels of speed, strength, and other fun skills.
On a budget of $3–5 million dollars, the film doesn’t have any big name stars, save for Logan Marshall-Green, who’s made a living as a solid discount Tom Hardy in films like Prometheus and Spider-Man Homecoming. Marshall-Green is pretty great here, conveying the sadness and tragedy well along with his ‘holy shit’ reaction to having new fighting and survival skills when he lets STEM take over his motor functions. The supporting cast is effective, though filled with faces you’re not likely used to. Benedict Hardie makes for a squirrelly, interesting villain with more upgrades that Grey, and Get Out’s Betty Gabriel plays a badass future cop pretty well.
One of the few weak points of the film for me was the crew of thugs that Grey was hunting down. Their portrayals, while boosted by fun tech like the aforementioned arm guns, is sadly on the generic side. I like my gang of cannon-fodder villains to at least have some type of personality, and save for the leader they’re just not all that memorable.
What the film may lack in stylized characters it certainly makes up for in technical design. The future world of the film looks absolutely fantastic for the money that was spent, including convincing cars, computer displays, and flying drones. It’s a really well designed movie, and it squeezes every cent out onto the screen. It helps that film film is accompanied by a retro-futuristic synth score from Jed Palmer, calling into memory scores for Drive and The Guest.
Upgrade also benefits from some really unique camera work, following Grey around as a fixed camera point while the world seemingly shakes around him. It’s something you have to see for yourself to truly understand. The action scenes are both brutal and humorous, finding an impressive balance between the two very opposite tones. Grey’s shocked reactions as his body takes out bad guys is hilarious, and his confidence as the film grows on, paired with Whannell’s trademark penchant for gore, makes those sequences (and their kills) memorable. Lastly, the cinematography by Stefan Duscio is gorgeous, with several scenes bathed in deep blues and reds that make the movie pop.
Upgrade embraces it’s B-movie roots, never pretending to be more than a revenge film with flair, and it succeeds because it has smarter-than average ideas on what AI and technology could mean for our future. It never digs particularly deep, but it does show in snippets a world that is consumed by technology. Everything from those police drones, to the humans that are enhancing their bodies with technology, to junkies who live in VR for days on end help build a world that at least makes us question the nature of AI. The nature of STEM itself, as well as other scenes of malfunctioning or hacked AI certainly helps build a feeling of quiet suspicion for that technology. Upgrade has these little touches, but never forgets to throw in an exploding head or a cut up body for genre kicks.
Upgrade is a film that should be celebrated as a true low-budget B-movie that is smarter and more fun than it has any right to be. Whannell has put together an interesting techno-future backdrop to supplement and enhance a better-than-standard revenge tale. It’s going to make it’s money back easily, even if it doesn’t make that much to begin with. I anticipate that Upgrade will be a part of late-night bloody action marathons for a long time into the future.
The Final Pop
Upgrade is a B-movie that embraces it’s nature and uses every cent of it’s budget to tell a smart, violent, and jet-black funny revenge story. It’s strong central performance, creative storyline, and interesting technological twists help give it a boost above your average B-movie fare.
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