Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen
Watch Upgrade online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
First came computer hacks. Then came life hacks. These days, body hacks are in, with some people doing everything from inserting magnets in their ears to adding NFC chips in their hands to work Oyster card and other contactless readers. It’s an unsettling grey area between self-improvement and experimental science, full of ethical questions and physical risk – all of which makes it fertile ground for horror stories. Enter Saw’s Leigh Whannell, who taps directly into that fear with Upgrade.
Set in the near future, the Blumhouse joint follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic whose wife, Asha, (Melanie Vallejo), works for Cobolt, a human augmentation company – much to his wary cynicism. But when their self-driving car malfunctions and leaves him paralysed, his only hope to move again (and investigate the mugging and killing of his wife) is to let tech pioneer Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who runs a firm called Vessel, insert an AI chip, STEM, into his spine and reboot his motor functions.
The result more than earns the film’s title, giving Grey his physical capabilities back and then some – Grey 2.0 has added strength, ramped-up speed, killer reflexes… and a little voice in his head that says it can help him track down his wife’s attackers. It’s a hackneyed, old-fashioned revenge scenario, injected with a dose of The Six Million Dollar Man, but Upgrade’s resonance in a new digital age gives it a wonderful frisson of topicality – this is a film where drone footage can use facial recognition, where guns can be smuggled by being hidden inside people’s hands, where super-charged retinas can record and remember the smallest detail, and limbs can sketch them out on auto-pilot.
That immediacy is fused with an electrifying rush of adrenaline by Whannell, who directs this quest for revenge with a camera that feels like it has a mind of its own; it swoops through action sequences, bends backwards with Grey’s optimised skeleton, and turns upside down in an attempt to keep up with his slick combat moves. The soundtrack, all cracks, snaps and sparks, keeps your nerves on edge, while the choreography and pacing rocket along with a visceral drive.
And yet, while there’s a creepiness to every set piece and each freshly implausible stunt, Logan Marshall-Green grounds the whole thing with a slight hint of humour – he greets the absurdity of STEM’s growing power with a mix of wry deadpan, relatable paranoia, resigned determination and barely concealed enjoyment. Lean and mean, it’s like a comic book movie gone wrong in the worst possible way, stuffed with violence, immorality and no end of body horror; a low-budget blockbuster that plays like the origin story of a super-villain.
Is it really all that novel? Dig deep into Upgrade’s DNA and you’ll find components picked from all over cinema history. But Marshall-Green’s charismatic and flexible presence, hardwired with Whannell’s inventive eye for R-rated thrills (there are no 12A compromises here), makes for a fun, disturbing ride that hacks your attention span with mechanical precision. Don’t hesitate to plug it into your eyeballs.