Leigh Whannell is a filmmaker who is steeped in the genres of cinema. The Saw series carved a way through the horror genre, helping forge a subgenre of gorno films (or, torture porn) that changed the face of horror films for almost a decade. Then, as the death rattle of Saw started to run out, the Insidious genre came creaking through the night alongside the Conjuring series (which Saw director and co-writer, James Wan, helped usher into existence) to help usher in a new era of ghost stories. Whannell’s appreciation and understanding of what makes the horror genre tick shines through in these series.
So, with the Insidious series now coming to its natural conclusion, Whannell has turned his attention to two genres – action and sci-fi – and whacked them together in a blender, pouring out the goretastic, wonderfully eccentric, Upgrade. This futuristic flick has technophobe, Grey Trace (a never better Logan Marshall-Green), selling a vintage car to tech guru, Eron Keen (an enigmatic Harrison Gilbertson). Grey prefers to avoid technology as much as possible, opting for analogue over digital, much to the amusement of his wife Asha (a wonderful Melanie Vallejo). After dropping off this vintage car, and returning home in their futuristic, AI driven vehicle, Asha and Grey are in a car crash, and after being ambushed by bandanna wearing thugs, Asha is killed, with Grey being left a paraplegic. His life in ruins, and mourning the loss of his wife, Grey simple wants the sweet embrace of death to come for him. Yet, before too long, Keen comes to him with something that might revitalise Grey’s life – a microchip that will allow him to regain movement of his limbs. Reluctantly, Grey agrees, and with his wife’s killers still on the loose, and Detective Cortez (a measured Betty Gabriel) requesting Grey’s help to solve the case, Grey heads off with his newly working limbs on the path of revenge.
Oh, I forgot to mention, the microchip installed in Grey? It contains an AI named Stem (Simon Maiden) that communicates directly with its host. And, when requested, can take over Grey’s limbs, turning him into an all powerful fighting machine that executes perfect punches with potentially lethal blows.
The basic plot suggests that this will be a simple affair of ‘woman in refrigerator’, then a basic revenge plot to conquer the men who put said woman in refrigerator. And while that is the core plot of Upgrade, it’s Leigh Whannell’s exceptional script that elevates sci-fi action genre tropes to a new level. Whannell understands that for the kick ass action to carry weight, there needs to be equal weight in the ‘character development’ field for the scales to balance. He gifts Grey and Asha with a warmth and humanity that helps show them as a couple in love, and thanks to the great performances from Marshall-Green and Vallejo, Asha’s death is genuinely moving. In turn, Grey’s restriction to a wheelchair, and his subsequent reliance on artificial intelligence to help him live what is left of his life, paired with the grief over the loss of Asha, breeds a palpable resentment that fosters an understandably level of self hate that fuels a desire to no longer live in this world anymore.
So, first ingredient in the Upgrade smoothie is character development, then, Whannell throws in a healthy scoop of style and talent in all fields. Stunt coordinator Chris Anderson choreographs fight sequences that are exhilarating to watch, and downright engaging. Chuck in a searing, futuristic score from Jed Palmer, atmospheric cinematography from Stefan Duscio (who manages to turn Docklands in Melbourne into a believable, future-drenched nowheresville society via well visualised darkness), and Andy Canny’s effective editing, and with Whannell’s finger on the pulse button, there’s a combined symphony of brilliance that just sings.
Anderson’s choreography carries a certain ‘robotic’ aspect to it, with Grey throwing precise punches that feel operated by algorithms. Marshall-Green genuinely gives the impression that he’s a man in a body that’s being operated by someone else. A confused, surprised look falls on Grey’s face as he’s able to see the possibilities that Stem offers him in combat with smooth and fluid movements. Stefan Duscio’s cinematography whips and snaps with every punch, throwing the viewer into the mix, slamming the feeling of having ten Red Bull’s at once down their throat. Grey gradually becomes more comfortable with the violence, with he and Stem operating like a buddy system in surgical fashion, paving the way for a spectacular finale that stuns and subverts expectations.
While there have been countless exciting hand-to-hand focused action films over the past decade (John Wick and The Raid 2 sitting high on the pile), there’s something unique and refreshing about Upgrade that feels like a much needed energy injection. It’s surprising, great, entertaining fun, sitting comfortably alongside the undervalued Shoot ‘Em Up as being a subversive take on a well worn genre. Leigh Whannell has already impressed as a writer (heck, check out the extremely darkly comic The Mule to see how well Whannell works in the Coen-esque landscape), but Upgrade has him proudly announcing his worth as a director.
Sign this man up for more.
Part-Bioshock, part-Haruki Murakami, part-John Wick, yet entirely unique – Upgrade is essential viewing.
Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Simon Maiden
Writer: Leigh Whannell