Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Upgrade (2018)

Written and directed by Leigh Wannell, Upgrade is a sci-fi action movie that also revels in moments of gloriously gory vengeance. While it’s only the second directorial feature from Wannell, he already shows a big step up from his work on Insidious 3 (which was, admittedly, hampered by it feeling very unnecessary and also too tenuously connected to the other movies in that series).

It's the future. A believably near future. Homes are efficiently managed by computers, as are cars, and most people have become very comfortable with giving commands to invisible helpers. Grey (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is not one of those people, despite the fact that his wife (Asha, played by Melanie Vallejo) is. Marshall-Green much prefers to get his hands dirty, such as when he is working on classic cars that need an actual driver to drive them. Despite their opposing views on technology, the husband and wife make a lovely couple, until a car accident leaves them vulnerable to an attack by vicious crooks. With his wife dead and himself rendered quadriplegic, Grey would rather be dead. There is, however, a small gleam of light at the end of the tunnel. A new tech called STEM, a chip that could be planted in just the right place inside his body to help him walk and have a normal life again. But the procedure, and tech, has to be kept a secret. Which becomes more difficult as STEM starts to speak to Grey and reveal that they can work together to find those responsible for the death of his wife. Some extreme violence ensues.

I know the preceding paragraph is quite a lengthy one, and I usually try to make my movie summaries more concise, but it still doesn't cover the other interesting ideas that the film goes into, which is a huge plus. Wannell does very well indeed with the moments of action and violence, but he is savvy to the fact that he can't expect to keep viewers engaged with just those "trailer shots". So you end up getting a film that nicely hops around between the gleefully visceral and the interesting and thought-provoking ideas threaded throughout (okay, they're not the MOST thought-provoking ideas you could have in a film script but they're certainly a welcome addition to something that could have tried to coast along without them).

Marshall-Green is great in the lead role, spending a lot of the first third of the movie in quite a downbeat mood, understandably once he loses his wife and use of his limbs, and then being astounded and torn by the choices that STEM offers him. Vallejo makes a good impression in the small amount of screentime she has, Harrison Gilbertson is decent as the scientist responsible for the device and operation, and Betty Gabriel is your standard, doggedly determined, police officer who wants to help the hero and eventually starts to piece things together ahead of everyone else. Benedict Hardie is an impressively skilled and callous main villain (helped by the fact that he looks and acts like a cross between Robert Knepper and Jackie Earl Haley) but everyone else encountered by Marshall-Green does good work, even if they are there to be gorily despatched en route to the main target.

It's no surprise that this is such a big step up for Wannell as a director, considering the concept and the fact that it's not beholden to any other entries in a series. The big surprise is that it easily ranks alongside a lot of his other scripts, and may even be one of his best. Not that the dialogue is quotable, or even that good at times, but it uses some broad brush strokes to great effect in the way it explores a range of human emotions, vengeance and morality, and that blurring divide that keeps getting thinner and thinner between tech and those who operate it.

There are a lot of clear influences on display throughout - from The Terminator to the films of David Cronenberg - but Upgrade manages to cram them all in while still feeling very much like its own beast. Which may very well be the best skill that Wannell has in his bag of tricks.


It's going to be a while yet until Upgrade is on shiny disc here in the UK.
Americans can buy it here.

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